THE sight of Romulo Neri sitting before the Senate — supposedly today — is undoubtedly a much-awaited one, but then the likelihood that the former socioeconomic and planning secretary would refuse to answer the very questions demanded of him by again invoking executive privilege prodded senators to altogether reject the compromise solution proposed by the Supreme Court.
Last Tuesday, the High Court, while hearing oral arguments on the petition filed by Neri on the issue of his invocation of executive privilege, laid down its compromise proposal to bring Neri back to testify at the Senate on condition that the three questions to which he invoked executive privilege are withdrawn. Neri’s counsel agreed while the Senate was given 24 hours to decide.
The three questions were as follows:
- Whether President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo followed up on the national broadband network project?
- Whether the President dictated Neri to prioritize ZTE Corporation?
- Whether the President told Neri to go ahead and approve the project even after being told about the alleged bribery?
Based on Chief Justice Reynato Puno’s proposal, these three questions are already before the Court for the justices to rule on, but senators could still ask Neri other questions unless he invokes his right against self-incrimination or executive privilege. If the senators disagree with those invocations, they can bring their case back to the Court, which will decide on all these questions, including the original three, all at the same time.
Senators were initially inclined to accept the compromise. Senator Mar Roxas, for one, said he found it to be reasonable, a “practical way of moving forward.”
But yesterday, the Senate officially informed the Supreme Court of its decision not to meet Neri halfway. Its argument: the compromise renders the Senate marginalized in the Arroyo administration’s efforts to prevent key witnesses from shedding light on the issue.
In its comment to the compromise proposal submitted to the SC, the Senate maintained that:
- There is no valid justification for Neri to claim executive privilege;
- Neri’s testimony is material and pertinent in aid of legislation;
- The Senate committees have not abused their authority to order Neri’s arrest.
The Senate also argued that Neri did not come to court with clean hands, having acquiesced to accommodate the NBN project as a loan package instead of a build-operate-transfer (BOT) mode after succumbing to intense pressure from some high executive officials.
Read the Senate’s comment on Neri’s petition here.
“Neri was evasive, refused to tell the truth and invoked executive privilege then when we still had the powers to arrest and detain him, why then should he be cooperative now when we can no longer arrest and detain him because of the restraining order?” said Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan. “He will simply refuse to answer any and all questions without fear of detention.”
In defending the Senate’s position, Pangilinan said the compromise proposal renders the legislature’s coercive power of arrest “inutile” in seeking the truth from the testimonies of witnesses. “If our power to arrest and detain witnesses who refuse without valid cause to answer questions truthfully is clipped, it will be a means to help cover up the truth. We cannot allow this to happen,” he said.
Legal experts like former University of the Philippines law dean Raul Pangalanan also think the Senate made the correct decision. “It makes sense for the Senate,” he argued. “The senators could have had the advantage of asking other NBN-related questions outside the Neri-Arroyo conversations, on Lozada’s testimonies, for instance, but the high court, in the first place, already has enough facts to decide whether Neri’s claim for executive privilege is valid.”
Senator Roxas, however, wants his colleagues to reassess their decision. “Is it more important to assert the Senate’s power of arrest than working out with the Supreme Court the intricate issues surrounding executive privilege?” he asked.
For the Capiz senator, the Senate’s most immediate objective should be to have Neri testify in the Senate so as to “strengthen the thread of stories already credibly told by (key witness) Rodolfo Noel Lozada Jr.” Though there is no assurance that Neri would tell the truth, Roxas said senators could leave it to his conscience to continue invoking executive privilege. At the same time, he reminded his colleagues that the SC justices have clearly stated that such privilege cannot be used to cover up a crime.
The Senate may have valid reasons for rejecting the compromise, but lawyer Marlon Manuel, spokesperson of the Alternative Law Groups, said he also had wanted the senators to agree to it. “Personally, I prefer the SC formula as this would have meant the immediate resumption of the Senate hearing with Neri as witness.”
Now that the deal is off, Manuel said it would take the Supreme Court at least a month to resolve the issue of Neri’s invocation of executive privilege for the three questions.
Political analyst Ramon Casiple, however, sees the NBN issue continuously dragging on. Saying the Senate’s argument that the compromise would limit its powers is flimsy, Casiple noted that the prolonged crisis without any decisive ending only favors those who do not want Arroyo to resign immediately.
The SC compromise, he pointed out, would lead to Arroyo’s early resignation and the rise of Vice President Noli de Castro.
“They wouldn’t want to bring it to end,” he said. “If Noli (De Castro) becomes (the) beneficiary (President), he will have time to consolidate the ruling coalition before the 2010 elections.”
This is an inevitable that, Casiple explained, some of the incumbent senators who are eyeing the presidency would want to hold off for as long as possible.
“If the crisis does not force their hand, they would want to prolong things and bask in the priceless public fascination with the scandal,” he said.
Casiple further stressed that the current political scenario is merely dribbling of the ball. “There are unforeseen consequences, not the least of which is a possible polarization of the situation. Only extremes will be glad in the prolonging of the crisis.”