Ombudsman Gutierrez twists in the wind | Inquirer News

Ombudsman Gutierrez twists in the wind

SC junks appeal; House body votes to impeach

MANILA, Philippines—Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez on Tuesday was dealt with heavy blows—the expected overwhelming vote of the House of Representatives’ justice committee to forward the impeachment case against her for plenary voting, and the Supreme Court’s dismissal of her appeal to stop the impeachment proceedings.

“It is a triumph of the people at this stage, an initial victory for the people in exercising their sovereign power to remove an accountable officer through impeachment,” Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr., chair of the justice committee, told the Inquirer after the hearing.

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Same arguments for Arroyo

House Minority Leader Edcel Lagman and other Gutierrez defenders used the arguments that they themselves rejected when they blocked the series of impeachment complaints against then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, including the argument that the impeachment process was not merely a political exercise but should also be grounded on evidence, like a court trial.

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The voting was preceded by a four-hour debate on whether impeachment was a mere numbers game and whether Gutierrez had been given due process by the justice committee, with the pros outnumbering the antis by more than 6 to 1.

Gutierrez and her lawyer were not present. But they submitted two letters to the committee on Tuesday and on March 4 to deny the charges, accompanied by what Lagman described as “two-foot-high documents.” These were also described by a committee member as an “obstruction of justice.”

Probable cause

The committee voted 39-9, with Lagman abstaining, in finding probable cause to impeach Gutierrez based on the complaint filed by a group led by former Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros.

In that complaint, Gutierrez was cited for her “unconscionably low” conviction rate in cases including the graft charges filed against Arroyo and her husband on their involvement in the $329-million NBN-ZTE deal and the suspicious death of Navy Ensign Philip Pestaño. Ilocos Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas, the committee vice chair, said his “yes” vote did not cover the Pestaño case because he felt the Ombudsman had acted on it.

The committee voted 39-6, again with Lagman abstaining, on the impeachment complaint filed by a group led by Bagong Alyansang Makabayan’s Renato Reyes, which assailed the Ombudsman for her purported inaction on the P728-million fertilizer fund scam, the “euro generals” scandal, and the Mega Pacific eSolutions contract with the Commission on Elections which the Supreme Court had voided.

Tupas said he expected the committee to submit its report and articles of impeachment on March 14, with the plenary debate expected to start by March 15 or 16.

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Public accountability

He told reporters in a press conference after the hearing that he expected the impeachment case to be approved by March 22 or 23.

In an interview, Tupas said he was pleased with the result of the voting as it affirmed the people’s belief in public accountability.

He said the high court’s decision dismissing Gutierrez’s motion for reconsideration at the time when the committee was about to vote on the finding of probable cause was timely.

“In effect, the Supreme Court is sending the message that it is supporting the process and is recognizing the people’s power of impeachment through Congress,” he said.

Same SC vote

In a press conference, Supreme Court spokesperson Jose Midas Marquez said the justices’ vote rejecting Gutierrez’s appeal was the same—7-5-2—as when they dismissed her petition on Feb. 15.

“That means that the House can proceed with its impeachment proceedings against Ombudsman Gutierrez. Jurisprudence tells us that second motions for reconsideration are prohibited pleadings,” Marquez said.

Those who voted against Gutierrez’s petition and also denied her appeal were Senior Associate Justices Conchita Carpio-Morales and Antonio Carpio and Associate Justices Antonio Eduardo Nachura, Martin Villarama, Jose Mendoza, Roberto Abad and Maria Lourdes Sereno (President Aquino’s lone appointee to the high court).

Those who dissented were Chief Justice Renato Corona and Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Arturo Brion, Diosdado Peralta and Lucas Bersamin.

Associate Justices Jose Perez and Mariano del Castillo partially concurred with the majority. Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr. inhibited because his son, Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco, is a member of the House justice committee.

Gutierrez had argued that the justice committee violated the constitutional provision that only one impeachment proceeding may be filed against a public official in a year.

Marquez said the high court denied her appeal based on the ground cited when her petition was rejected—that the two impeachment complaints were referred to the House justice committee at the same time, thus constituting one proceeding.

‘Imprudent haste’

In defending Gutierrez, Lagman said the Ombudsman was being singled out to serve as an example of the government’s anticorruption efforts.

He also said Gutierrez was denied due process with the justice committee rushing to impeach her after members of the ruling Liberal Party received a pep talk from President Aquino.

“The critical imperativeness of due process must not be sacrificed to imprudent haste or partisan importuning. Impeachment of a respondent at all costs is not the raison d’être for redeeming a campaign promise,” Lagman said.

He also said the majority members could not have digested the documents filed by Gutierrez after getting them only late Monday afternoon.

Lagman argued that contrary to the claim made by the majority, the impeachment case was “akin to prosecutorial and adjudicatory proceedings” because the rules of criminal procedure were adopted.

“I raise these points in order to impress on the leadership and membership of the committee on justice not to jettison the immutable tenet of due process,” he said.

‘Moro-moro’

But Fariñas said the committee had extended all accommodations available to Gutierrez even if she had repeatedly mocked the impeachment hearings as a “moro-moro” (farce).

Northern Samar Rep. Raul Daza said Gutierrez invoked due process only when it was convenient for her.

Isabela Rep. Georgidi Aggabao, who was deputized by South Cotabato Rep. Daisy Fuentes, said that even if the charges were “gratuitously granted as true,” they could not be considered impeachable offenses.

“The decision of the committee was arbitrary and I predict the case will face very rough sailing at the Senate,” Aggabao added.

While the 83 members of the Liberal Party have agreed to vote as one in the plenary voting, the Nationalist People’s Coalition has allowed its 40 members to vote according to their conscience, according to Valenzuela Rep. Rex Gatchalian.

6 out of 10

The justice committee pared down the first complaint, saying most of the cases could not be used as basis for impeachment, such as Hontiveros’ arrest at a women’s rally, and retained the three charges in the second complaint.

Tupas said the two complaints would now be consolidated under the articles of impeachment on the ground of betrayal of public trust, and would carry only six—three each from the two complaints—of the original 10 allegations.

“We will arrange the order accordingly as will be discussed in the plenary,” Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tañada III said. “We decided that we will look more at the strength of each ground and we feel that these are the strongest grounds that we can present in the Senate to prove that Ombudsman Gutierrez has to be impeached.”

Tupas said the committee’s work was over.

“As far as the committee on justice is concerned, we’ve already concluded our constitutional duty. We have voted and found the existence of probable cause on the complaints against Merceditas Gutierrez for betrayal of public trust,” he said.

At the press conference, Tupas named seven lawyer-members of the committee who would help him draft the committee report and the articles of impeachment—Daza, Tañada, Fariñas, Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali, Dasmariñas Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr., Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares, and Akbayan Rep. Kaka Bag-ao.

He said he would recommend to Speaker Feliciano Belmonte that the seven also be named to the 11-member panel that would prosecute the impeachment complaint in the Senate should the House plenary affirm the committee report.

Veiled threat

At the hearing, Marikina Rep. Miro Quimbo, one of four senior committee members who have charges pending in the Office of the Ombudsman, lamented what he claimed was an irresponsible attack on their reputation by Gutierrez’s allies.

Quimbo said he was “disheartened” by the release of their names on Monday by Salvador Panelo, lawyer and spokesperson of Gutierrez, instead of presenting evidence on behalf of his client.

“I am led to think that the revelations by the Ombudsman’s counsel on pending cases before the Ombudsman is but a veiled threat designed to cow members not to vote in favor of impeachment,” said Quimbo, a deputy majority leader and vice chair of the committee.

“I find it suspicious that he mentions that more than 50 percent of members of Congress have cases being investigated by the Ombudsman, but he only reveals to the media the names of the top four officers of the justice committee. I find this highly suspicious, especially considering that it was done on the eve of today’s voting,” he said.

Quimbo later delivered a privilege speech on the matter at the plenary session in the afternoon.

The other three committee members with pending cases in the Office of the Ombudsman are Tupas, Fariñas and Umali.

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TAGS: Congress, Impeachment, Judiciary (system of justice)
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