Tuesday, March 4, 2008

PerryScope: Gloria's "Omerta"

by Perry Diaz

On September 26, 2005, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued Executive Order 464 which prevented members of the cabinet, police and military generals, senior national security officials, and "such other officers as may be determined by the President" from attending congressional hearings unless approved by the President. Arroyo issued EO 464 when two military officers appeared before the Senate Committee on National Defense to testify during the investigation of the "Hello Garci" election cheating scandal.

With a single stroke of the pen, Arroyo imposed a "code of silence" in her administration. And like the Mafia's "Omerta," EO 464 made sure that what happens in Malacanang stays in Malacanang. So far, nobody dared to break Gloria's "Omerta," except Rodolfo "Jun" Lozada.

When Joey de Venecia III exposed the ZTE-NBN deal, he implicated Romulo Neri -- then the Director of NEDA -- for recommending approval of the overpriced $329 million deal. However, Neri said in his testimony before the Senate in September 2007 that former COMELEC Chairman Benjamin Abalos offered him P200 million for his endorsement of the deal. Neri then called Arroyo and told her about the bribery offer. Arroyo told Neri not to accept the bribe but to go ahead and endorse the deal. When asked for details, Neri invoked "executive privilege."

In January 2008, the Senate issued a warrant of arrest for Neri and Lozada to compel both of them to testify before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee. Consequently, Neri petitioned the Supreme Court for prohibition against the arrest warrant claiming immunity under EO 464. On February 5, 2008, the Supreme Court issued a "status quo" order which temporarily restrained the Senate from arresting Neri. Three days later, Lozada surfaced and appeared before the Senate and blew the whistle on the ZTE-NBN "sweetheart deal." He testified that Abalos wanted a $130 million kickback from the deal, $70 million of which would go to First Gentleman Mike Arroyo.

The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear the arguments of Neri on March 4 and would then decide whether EO 464 would prohibit Neri from disclosing the details of his conversation with Arroyo. It is interesting to note that in 2006, the Supreme Court ruled in the Senate vs. Ermita case that the doctrine of "executive privilege" was constitutional but failed to define the limits of such doctrine. However, it is the opinion of some legal experts that "executive privilege" can only be invoked when national security is involved. They are also of the opinion that "executive privilege" cannot be invoked when corruption is involved. Corruption is a crime and not even the President can shield anyone from prosecution of a crime.

Recently, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) issued a "pastoral letter" which condemned the "continuing culture of corruption from the top to the bottom of our social and political ladder." They recommended, among other things, the "abolition of EO 464 so that those who might have knowledge of any corruption in branches of government, may be free to testify before the appropriate investigating bodies." They also asked Arroyo to "allow her subordinates to reveal any corrupt acts, particularly about the ZTE-NBN deal, without being obstructed in their testimony no matter who is involved."

Arroyo immediately formed a legal team to study the possibility of scrapping EO 464. The members of the team were DoJ Secretary Raul Gonzalez, Solicitor General Agnes Devanadera, Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Sergio Apostol, Deputy Executive Secretary for Legal Affairs Manny Gaite, and Government Corporate Legal Counsel Alberto Agra. This would be like "Godfather" Vito Corleone appointing his Consigliere and capo regimes to come up with a recommendation on how to do away with the "Omerta" code of silence.

As expected, Malacanang said that it has deferred its decision to repeal or not repeal EO 464. Their excuse: "We have to clarify what the CBCP meant." Really? Was the pastoral letter not clear enough? Arroyo's legal team wanted to have a "dialogue" with the bishops. Once again, Arroyo pulled one of her tricks. But CBCP's reaction was: if Malacanang would not revoke EO 464, the 55 bishops will meet again to study their next move.

From what I understand, the CBCP was divided on how to deal with the corruption issues against Arroyo and her administration. After more than 10 hours of discussion, the pro-Arroyo majority favored a soft approach to dealing with the corruption issues. It was revealed that Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos threatened to oust Jaro Bishop Angel Lagdameo, the President of CBCP, if he wouldn't listen to the pro-Arroyo majority. It is interesting to note that Bishop Pueblos was appointed by Arroyo to the Melo Commission to investigate the extrajudicial killings. Now, with Arroyo's hesitation to abolish EO 464, the CBCP might change its stand and join the chorus in demanding her resignation. Among those who are urging Arroyo to abolish EO 464 were Vice President Noli de Castro; Gov. Ed Panlilio of Pampanga; Arroyo's political ally and close friend Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri; and -- surprisingly -- Philippine National Police Chief Avelino Razon.

With Arroyo's control of the Executive Branch, the House of Representatives, the military and the police, the only government bodies that she could not control -- or influence -- are the Senate and the Supreme Court. If the high court ruled in favor of Neri's petition, the Senate would be rendered inutile and put an end to its role as fiscalizer of the Executive Branch.

But the real issue is: What is Arroyo hiding from the public that she has to prohibit government officials from testifying in cases of corruption? There is a public clamor for the truth in the ZTE-NBN and other corruption cases. The only person that is keeping the truth from being disclosed is Gloria Arroyo. The people deserve to know the truth and if she continued to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the massive corruption in her administration, then she has lost the moral authority to lead the nation.