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House moves vs Sereno hit; Palace hands off

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. INQUIRER.net FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines–Even as Malacañang distanced itself from some of its congressional allies’ threat to impeach Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, court employees on Thursday slammed the House of Representatives’ ouster move. Sen. Francis Escudero said it could be part of the Aquino administration’s retaliation against the high court.

But still, there’s no excuse for Sereno and the justices not to explain the alleged misuse of the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF), said Escudero, chair of the Senate finance committee.

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“The executive [branch] has no participation in whatever move pertaining to impeachment,” Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma told reporters.

The court employees defended the JDF, a source of allowances that they said came from their own hard work through the collection of fees and even the bulk sale of excess copies of court documents to junk shops.

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Jojo Guerrero, president of the Judiciary Employees Association of the Philippines (Judea), said the impeachment threat seemed to be aimed at influencing how the high court would decide on Malacañang’s appeal to the ruling that nullified the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).

The high court declared the program unconstitutional on July 1, prompting President Aquino to warn of a collision between the coequal executive and judiciary branches.

Soon after, Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr. launched a probe of the JDF, which he described as the judiciary’s pork barrel, with the goal of abolishing the fund.

Last November, amid public outrage over the misuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. The PDAF was a source of kickbacks for lawmakers.

“What we feel is that this (impeachment threat) is to indirectly or even directly pressure the Chief Justice, to influence how she will decide on their case, their MR (motion for reconsideration),” Guerrero said.

“They are saying they want her impeached even without data, without an investigation. We feel that if you’re saying that even without evidence, you’re threatening [the Chief Justice],” he told the Inquirer.

On Wednesday, several lawmakers said Sereno could be held accountable for corrupt practices and betrayal of public trust in connection with allegedly questionable disbursements of the JDF, including purchases of motorcycles, computers and handguns.

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The threat came a day after the Chief Justice declined an invitation to appear in the Tupas-led House committee on justice’s inquiry into the JDF.

Inappropriate

In a letter to Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Sereno said it “might be premature” and “inappropriate” for her to appear in the hearing, reminding the House of judicial independence and what is supposed to be a harmonious relationship between coequal branches.

At a Senate press forum, Escudero said the timing of the threat to impeach Sereno was bad.

“Although that appears to be a retaliatory act, if there’s an issue that should be explained. After all, no one is above the law,” the senator said. “The issues and the principles of accountability and transparency apply to all even to the Supreme Court, even to the Chief Justice as it does with the President and all of us.”

Escudero, however, recognized Sereno’s prerogative to skip the hearing.

The militant group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), among the petitioners against the DAP, said the impeachment threat was an “implementation” of Aquino’s July 14 speech, in which he defended the DAP and asserted good faith in enforcing the stimulus program.

“Impeachment threats against Supreme Court justices over the JDF are an obvious attempt to arm-twist the Supreme Court to change its decision on the DAP… The system is so rotten that lawmakers who benefited from the DAP are now threatening the justices who voided the practices under the DAP,” said Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr.

Employees jittery

As administration allies had the numbers in Congress, Guerrero said court employees were “jittery” and were preparing for the possibility that the articles of impeachment might be filed soon, with all the requisite signatures.

The accusation that the JDF was misused apparently hurt court employees, who said that they worked hard to contribute to the fund.

Amiel de Vera, president of the Associate of Court of Appeals Employees (ACAE), said they even sold their stockpile of unclaimed or archived court documents to junk shops (bid out of course) to save on judiciary resources and add to the fund.

“If you notice, when you talk about alleged misappropriations in the JDF, nobody goes out to protest against it because people know that it is regularly audited,” De Vera told the Inquirer.

Source of allowance

The JDF, a source of allowances for court employees created through Presidential Decree No. 1949 in 1984, includes funds culled from court fees and other earnings, said ACAE officials. The amount is then divided among employees and released monthly, depending on the salary grade.

Court employees who are paid less get higher allowances under the JDF, while higher-ranked officials with bigger salaries get less.

Through Memorandum Order No. 01-2014 issued on Jan. 7, Sereno authorized the release of “additional cost of living allowance” for employees of the high court, Court of Appeals, Sandiganbayan, Court of Tax Appeals and lower courts amounting to P64.625 million.

Up to P2,400 a month

Under the memo, personnel receiving a monthly salary of P14,000 or less were allotted P2,400; those receiving between P14,001 and P21,000 an allowance of P2,300; and those receiving P21,001 and above, P2,200.

De Vera joked that the JDF could not be taken away, as employees had already “advanced” these through loans in their cooperative. “We lend P24,000 payable in a year. So, that’s P2,000 a month. We have already promised our JDF to pay for that.”

Virginia Ramos, a single mother serving as a stenographer at the appellate court, said every cent mattered for a parent raising a high school senior on her own.

She lamented that the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) wanted to tax even the allowances and fringe benefits of government employees, a measure that state workers’ associations questioned on Wednesday in the high court.

“Our salary is really not enough. That’s why we have to take loans… It (the JDF) is supposed to augment our salaries… but now they want to deduct even more,” she said.

Suit against BIR

Twelve employees’ associations and confederations representing 300,000 government workers on Wednesday asked the high court to stop the BIR from withholding taxes on their fringe benefits, arguing that this violated the Constitution.

Escudero said Aquino should ask Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares to suspend the tax on allowances and bonuses of government workers.

The senator said the BIR Memorandum Order No. 23-2014 imposing a withholding tax on all forms of compensation had come at the wrong time because there had been no increase in the pay of state workers.

“It’s more prudent to do that,” Escudero said when asked if the President should prevail upon the BIR not to implement the memorandum. “Otherwise, there would be a clash, and the situation would worsen. There should be an understanding because their pay has not been increased, and then you reduce their take-home pay.”

After all, Henares “serves at the pleasure of the President,” while Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima is the “alter-ego” of the President, the senator said.–With a report from Christian V. Esguerra

 

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TAGS: Congress, Francis Escudero, impeachment threat, Judiciary Development Fund (JDF), Maria Lourdes Sereno, Supreme Court
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