TOMORROW, March 16, the 283-member House of Representatives plans to vote in plenary on the impeachment complaint against Ombudsman Ma. Merceditas N. Gutierrez. At least 95 votes are needed for the complaint to move to the Senate, which alone under the law may sit as the impeachment tribunal to try Gutierrez for several counts of alleged betrayal of the public trust.
Yet other than the vote, the effort to impeach Gutierrez – the third attempt in as many years by the House and the only one to move past its Committee on Justice – has unfolded with two discussion tracks as backdrop. The first is an exchange of allegations of blackmail between Gutierrez’s camp and the lawmakers. The second is a vigorous campaign being mounted by both sides to court public opinion against each other.
Gutierrez drew first blood as early as last week, via lawyer Salvador Panelo who suddenly emerged out of the woodwork to serve as spokesperson for the beleaguered Ombudsman.
According to Panelo, a private law practitioner, at least 50 members of Congress have pending cases with the Ombudsman. He suggested that these same congressmen are now foisting the impeachment complaint on Gutierrez in an attempt to have her office drop their cases.
“This is blackmail,” Panelo told the PCIJ in an interview last Friday. He then upped the ante, saying that the number of congressmen who are the subjects of complaints before the Ombudsman is not 50, but 101.
When asked if these congressmen are actually respondents in cases already filed with the Sandiganbayan or are just the subjects of complaints that are still being investigated by the Ombudsman, Panelo replied: “It’s both. Some cases have been filed, and others are still being investigated.”
Queried further if the 101 lawmakers he was referring to were incumbents or former members of Congress, Panelo said, “It’s both. Some are still in Congress, others are former members.”
Sought for a reaction by the PCIJ on the weekend, Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr. – chairman of the House Committee on Justice that voted to send the impeachment complaint to plenary vote – did not deny the existence of a blackmail attempt. Tupas, however, said that the instigator of the deed is no other than Ombudsman herself.
It is Gutierrez, through Panelo, who is trying to blackmail members of Congress, asserted Tupas. (The lawmaker’s own father, former Iloilo governor Niel Tupas Sr., is a respondent in an alleged graft case that the Ombudsman filed with the Sandiganbayan in April 2010.
Tupas Jr. also told PCIJ: “Sa katunayan, ang pagsalita pa lang ni Panelo na ‘yan, blackmail na sa amin. Kami ang binablackmail niya… Ang mga kaso na iyan, may presumption of innocence ’yan at saka immaterial ‘yan sa impeachment complaint… alam nila na bina-blackmail nila kami. (In truth, the way Panelo spoke, they’re the ones blackmailing us. There should be a presumption of innocence in these cases, and these are immaterial to the impeachment. They know they are the ones blackmailing us.)”
Merci smiling now
Tupas Jr. has become almost a fixture in news and public affairs of late, along with legislators seen as pushing for the Ombudsman’s impeachment. But so, too, has Gutierrez, as well as her new informal spokesperson Panelo and lawyers.
The willingness of Gutierrez in particular to face the media has been a surprise. In the past, Gutierrez had been quite picky and diffident to reporters’ requests to interview her. Issued a summons to appear at the House and Senate hearings on the plea-bargain deal in the plunder case of former military comptroller Maj. Gen. Carlos F. Garcia, she was combative and prone to letting loose an acid tongue.
In recent days, though, it has been a smiling Gutierrez that has been talking to the media. Panelo acknowledged that the changes have all been studied: “I told her TV is a hot medium so she should smile some more, magpaliwanag nang mahinahon (explain things calmly). Eh sabi, ‘Kasi, minsan, talagang nabubuwisit na ako.’ (But she said, ‘Sometimes,I just get really irritated.’)”
But Panelo was less revealing about details that would back his assertions of “blackmail” and “conspiracy” by the House members to impeach Gutierrez. All he would say was that he got his data from the Office of the Ombudsman.
Of the 50 congressmen that he first claimed have pending cases with the Ombudsman, Panelo has so far named only four, and all of them senior members of the House Committee on Justice: Tupas, Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas, Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo V. Umali, and Marikina City Rep. Romero Federico Quimbo.
Since he had later said that in all, 101 congressmen have pending cases or complaints before Gutierrez’s office, Panelo has left unnamed 96 other legislators who may or may not have reason to harass the Ombudsman, if not “blackmail” her.
With Panelo unwilling to reveal more, the PCIJ reviewed the database of the Sandiganbayan on cases that had been filed by the Ombudsman from May 1988 to December 2010.
Gutierrez sued only 4
What the PCIJ found was a far smaller number than Panelo’s tally, and that included just three members of the 15th Congress sued for alleged corruption, and a fourth for alleged physical injuries, since Gutierrez assumed her post as Ombudsman in December 2005.
During her term, Gutierrez also sued a lawmaker of the 14th Congress, the Liberal Party’s Nereus O. Acosta, who was then serving as representative of Bukidnon.
Additionally, a great majority of the cases against lawmakers past and present had been dismissed, withdrawn, archived, resulted in the acquittal of the accused, and remain pending to this day.
The Sandiganbayan database also yields an incontrovertible fact: Thus far, under Gutierrez, not a single member of Congress has been jailed for graft and other offenses he or she committed while serving as a lawmaker.
To be sure, the Sandiganbayan records show that from March 1990 to December 2010, the Ombudsman had filed 118 cases that implicated at least 22 House members as respondents.
About 80 percent of these cases have since been disposed of; the 24 pending cases now involve only six House members.
Of these six, only three had the suits filed against them during Gutierrez’s watch: South Cotabato and General Santos City Rep. Pedro Acharon Jr., Samar Rep. Milagrosa Tan, and Lapu-Lapu City Rep. Arturo Radaza.
All three are being accused of having violated certain provisions in Republic Act No. 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act while they were not yet in Congress, but were nevertheless holding other elective posts.
The rest of the pending cases involve Association of Laborers and Employees (ALE) Party-List Rep. Catalina Bagasina (filed in 2004 when she was mayor), Oriental Mindoro Rep. Rodolfo Valencia (filed 1998 for questionable acts committed when he was governor) and Ilocos Norte Rep. Imelda R. Marcos (in 1995 and 1991 for acts when she was Minister of Human Settlements and Member of the Batasang Pambansa).
Three of the six lawmakers with pending cases are affiliated with Lakas-Kampi (Radaza, Tan and Valencia) while Acharon is with the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) and Marcos, the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL), respectively.
In 2007, Gutierrez had filed two cases of physical injuries against Rep. Eufranio C. Eriguel of La Union. The offenses were supposedly committed while Eriguel was serving as Agoo town mayor. Both cases were dismissed in 2009.
None of the members of the 15th Congress with pending cases is a member of the ruling Liberal Party (LP).
One LP stalwart, however – former Rep. Nereus O. Acosta of Bukidnon who served in the 14th Congress – is a respondent in three pending cases for alleged violation of R.A. No. 3019 that Gutierrez’s office filed in February 2009.
Acosta ran but lost as an LP candidate for senator in May 2010. He is reportedly being eyed for a Cabinet portfolio by President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, after the year-long ban on the appointment of defeated candidates lapses this May.
About four in 10 of the total number of cases filed against the members of the 15th Congress had been dismissed; 10 percent, archived; nine percent, transferred to other courts; four percent withdrawn by the Office of the Special Prosecutor (OSP); three percent, dismissed with trial; and one percent, dismissed because of insufficient evidence (or demurrer to evidence in legalese).
Ten of the 118 total cases resulted in the acquittal of six lawmakers: Davao del Sur Rep. Franklin Bautista, Surigao del Sur Rep. Florencio Garay, Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas, Mt. Province Rep. Maximo Dalog, Ilocos Norte Rep. Imelda Marcos, and Caloocan City Rep. Oscar Malapitan.
Meanwhile, six other cases ended in the conviction of three congressmen: Dinagat Islands Rep. Ruben Ecleo Jr., Rep. Rodolfo Valencia, and Ilocos Norte Rep. Imelda Marcos. The Sandiganbayan found all three of them guilty of violating certain provisions of R.A. No. 3019 – Ecleo when he was mayor of San Jose, Surigao del Norte; Valencia when he was Oriental Mindoro governor; and Marcos when she was chairwoman of the Light Rail Transit Authority.
None of these three lawmakers, though, is presently behind bars.
Ecleo, who was convicted in October 2006 for three counts of graft with a penalty of 18 years in prison, and perpetual and absolute disqualification from public office, has a pending third motion for reconsideration before the Supreme Court. The Sandiganbayan, however, has denied the motion to lift his arrest warrant.
In September 2008, the Sandiganbayan found Valencia guilty of misusing public funds. Valencia and his co-accused were sentenced to imprisonment of up to 10 years. But in January 2010, the anti-graft court accepted the lawmakers’ plea for retrial.
Marcos, meanwhile, was convicted of graft in 1993 and handed a minimum jail term of nine years and one day, but her conviction was later overturned by the Supreme Court.
Aside from the six House members with pending cases at the Sandiganbayan, at least three members of the Committee on Justice have relatives who are respondents in other cases.
One of these is the father of Rep. Tupas Jr., who is a respondent in two cases Gutierrez filed in April 2010. The cases stemmed from a complaint submitted to the Ombudsman that accused Tupas Sr. of committing graft after granting a quarry permit to an allegedly unqualified private contractor in September 2004.
In 1997, then Ombudsman Aniano Desierto sued Alfonso Umali, the brother of Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo V. Umali. Alfonso, himself a former representative and who was also once Oriental Mindoro’s provincial administrator, was a co-respondent in the case filed against Rep. Valencia. Last year, the Sandiganbayan approved the retrial of the case.
Roque Agton, a brother-in-law of Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab, is a respondent in a graft case filed in 1992. Agton had been accused of one count of malversation and four counts of falsification when he was serving as regional director of the Office of the Southern Cultural Communities. All five cases were dismissed in 2002.
The cases against Umali and Tupas Sr. are pending before the Sandiganbayan.
Tupas Sr.’s cases have recently received special attention, however. These cases had been discussed by Gutierrez’s deputies and the Tupases in at least two meetings, according to both Panelo and Tupas Jr. But each camp has its own version of the discussions that took place.
As Panelo tells it, one meeting had Congressman Tupas Jr. going to the Office of the Ombudsman to meet with Overall Deputy Ombudsman Orlando Casimiro, supposedly to ask that the cases against his father be dropped. Panelo is not clear about the date and other details of this meeting, though.
Tupas Jr. said he had two meetings with Casimiro. The first took place at the Office of the Ombudsman in early June 2010, or before Tupas Jr. took his oath as member of the 15th Congress and before he was elected as chairman of the House Committee on Justice. The lawmaker said the second meeting took place at his office at the House of Representatives, when Casimiro and a senior prosecutor visited in October 2010.
Tupas Jr. said the first meeting was prompted by Casimiro, who he said invited him to visit the Ombudsman’s office in Diliman, Quezon City. This was, he added, after the 2010 elections. “He texted me, and then Casimiro called me up that he had a tip,” said Tupas Jr. “I went to visit him because he said he had a tip.”
“Wala pang committee on justice, wala pang Kongreso noon,” said Tupas Jr. “Sabi n’ya sa akin, ‘Pasensya ka na Congressman, may nagmamaniobra dito sa loob ng Ombudsman.’ Sabi ko, sino ang nagmamaniobra? ‘Si Mark Jalandoni.’ sabi niya. ‘Lahat ng kaso dito dadaan kay Mark Jalandoni, at inuutusan lang ako’ (He said, ‘Sorry, Congressman, but there’s someone manipulating things here inside the Ombudsman. I said, who’s manipulating? ‘Mark Jalandoni,’ he said. ‘All cases here pass through Mark Jalandoni and I’m just being told what to do.)’”
Tupas Jr. said he asked why Jalandoni, the Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon, could command more authority when Casimiro as Overall Deputy Ombudsman is a more senior official. “I said, ‘Aren’t you the Number 2 man here? Why are you being ordered around by a subordinate?’ He said, ‘I can’t do anything, siya dito ang nagmamaniobra (he is the one manipulating things)’.”
The PCIJ tried to get Jalandoni’s side. His secretary said he was in a case-deliberations meeting that started in the morning and could last the whole day.
Tupas Jr. said he met with Casimiro again at the House last September, after the House Committee on Justice had voted on the sufficiency in form and substance of the impeachment complaints against Gutierrez.
“And when the impeachment (proceedings) were at their peak, when there was already sufficiency in form and substance vote…Ombudsman Casimiro, without an appointment, waited at my office,” said Tupas Jr. “When I got there, I was surprised to find him waiting, along with a prosecutor from the Office of the Special Prosecutor.”
“Tapos nilapitan niya ako agad sa loob ng kwarto ko at binulungan niya ako (Then he approached quickly inside my room and he whispered something to me),”recounted Tupas Jr. “ He said, ‘I reviewed your father’s case, Congressman. It’s so weak because it turns out that there’s already a regional trial court decision on it. It’s been dismissed.’”
Quid pro quo offer?
According to the congressman, he then asked Casimiro why he had signed the complaint against Tupas Sr. if the case was weak. Casimiro’s reply, said the younger Tupas, was: “May utos e, wala akong magagawa (There was an order, I couldn’t do anything).”
But Casimiro said more, according to Tupas. “Sabi niya sa akin, ang exact words niya, ‘Pero Congressman, nagpapasabi si Madame Ombudsman na kung pagbibigyan niya ba ang ama mo sa kaso, pagbibigyan mo din ba siya sa kaso niya dito sa impeachment’ (He told me, his exact words were, ‘But Congressman, Madame Ombudsman says that if she gives way to your father in the case, would you also give way to her in the impeachment’)?”
What sounded like a quid pro quo offer stunned him, Tupas Jr. said. “I was really surprised by that,” he said. “I was really embarrassed for the one telling me this. And so I said, if you’re looking for some kind of deal, there’s no such thing here. Because I have no real power, it’s the people wielding the power. And that is the end of it. “
Tupas Jr. said that also present at his office during this second meeting were his father and a sibling, both of whom stood within hearing distance of Casimiro and the legislator. One of his staffers was there as well. “I was embarrassed, my father even raised his voice,” said Tupas Jr. “My father said, ‘Go ahead with the case against me!”
In news reports that followed Tupas’s revelation of their meeting, Casimiro had confirmed that the meeting actually took place but clarified that it focused on a different subject matter, and not on the cases of Tupas’s father or the impeachment complaints against Gutierrez.
Tupas said that soon after the House plenary would have voted on the impeachment complaint, he plans to summon Casimiro to testify under oath on what they discussed at that meeting. “If it’s true that he’s denying what (we talked about),” he said, “well, I will file cases against those who commit perjury.”— PCIJ, March 2011