CHARGES of cheating, bribery, graft and corruption and other crimes will continue to haunt President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo even beyond 2010 as her critics vowed to carry on the fight while Catholic bishops urged the citizenry to keep searching for the truth behind those lingering allegations.

The committee on justice of the House of Representatives on Wednesday voted 42-8 to dismiss for insufficiency in substance the fourth impeachment complaint filed against Mrs. Arroyo since 2005.

After the vote, Jose ‘Joey’ de Venecia III, a complainant in the latest impeachment case filed against Mrs. Arroyo and bidder in the botched $329-million national broadband deal, said, “We will not keep quiet. The fight in the halls of Congress may be over but the real fight for truth and justice goes on.”

The justice committee will still have to submit its report recommending dismissal of the complaint to the House in plenary. The committee’s decision can only be overturned if the opposition could get one-third of about 230 members of the House. But an opposition member said they could get only as little as 20 votes on the floor.

Bukidnon Rep. Teofisto Guingona III noted that the dismissal of the complaint came less than 24 hours after speculations flew thick that money were again distributed to some Arroyo allies in a hotel in Mandaluyong City.

Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel said the case may soon be elevated to the Supreme Court.

‘Abuse of discretion’

“The Committee on Justice has just committed an abuse of discretion. The rules are to be construed liberally since the rules for the 14th Congress are different from the rules during the 12th and 13th Congresses,” she said. “The only requirement now for the decision on sufficiency in substance is the recital of facts and determination of jurisdiction over the complaint. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Rolex Suplico, a former congressman and now vice governor of Iloilo, says the impeachment complaint may be transformed into a criminal suit against the President the moment she steps down.

“And now the end is near,” said Suplico in a text message. “At the end of the day, President Arroyo will have to face the music. She cannot hold on to power forever.”

“We will bring this case straight to the people. We will go to them and talk to them. We will put out into the open what the government would rather keep under the cloak of darkness,” said de Venecia, son of the former speaker who lost to the Chinese firm Zhong Xing Telecommunications Equipment Corp., Ltd (ZTE) in the botched NBN project.

The Philippine government canceled the ZTE contract on the broadband project after allegations of irregularities came out last year.

Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), said the justice committee’s decision to “kill” the complaint did not come as a surprise considering that Arroyo’s allies dominate the panel.

The prelate advised the citizenry to remain vigilant against sinister moves of the administration, such as the possibility of extending the term of President Arroyo beyond 2010.

‘Exhumed carcasses’

Among the charges hurled against the President were:

  • bribery involving the distribution of P500,000 to congressmen and provincial governors to support a three-page complaint considered as “weak” by her detractors;
  • cheating in the 2004 presidential elections on the basis of the “Hello, Garci” wiretapped tapes;
  • graft and corruption involving conflict of interest arising from her meeting during a golf game in Shenzhen with top executives of China’s ZTE Corporation;
  • her involvement in the P5-billion Quedancor swine breeding project and P729-million fertilizer fund anomalies; the granting of a mining contract to ZTE in Diwalwal, Compostela Valley; as well as in the extrajudicial killings of activists.

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, vice chairman of the justice committee and lead defender of Arroyo in the impeachment hearing, dismissed the charges as “recycled and rehashed” which had been included in previous complaints already trashed for insufficiency in substance.

Seeking the complaint’s dismissal for insufficiency in substance, Lagman said: “The hearse of exhumed carcasses must be laid back to the graveyard.”

“I am perplexed why the complainants have not learned their lesson from their failure in the previous impeachment cases which were all dismissed for insufficiency in substance for alleging deficient or infirm recital of ultimate facts. Either there is a failure in craftsmanship and advocacy or the complainants cannot in truth and in conscience really make out a case for impeachment against President Arroyo,” said Lagman, a staunch opposition ally under previous administrations.

He also described the allegations regarding Arroyo’s direct involvement in the ZTE deal as “factually and legally deficient.” The photograph de Venecia showed with Arroyo, First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, former Commission on Elections chair Benjamin Abalos Sr. and himself with top executives of ZTE at a golf course in Shenzhen could not even enhance the impeachment complaint, he said.

“Of course, pictures do not lie, but biased viewers do lie. The picture of the Shenzhen golf course simply and only depicts the personalities in the photograph. No more, no less. Definitely, it is not a criminal pose or a mugshot. Neither does it portray a criminal act. But if the complainants would like to embellish the picture of (with their) own self-serving interpretations and innuendos, that is their own concern. However, it would not in anyway enhance the complaint because such interpretation and opinions are not ultimate facts,” Lagman explained.

JDV in deeper trouble?

Lagman also sought to shield President Arroyo from the P500, 000 bribery allegation made by Pangasinan Rep. Jose de Venecia Jr., a loyal Arroyo ally until he was ousted as speaker of the House last February.

Citing de Venecia’s letter to Deputy Speaker Raul del Mar in October 2007, the Bicolano lawmaker said nowhere was there mention that the impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Roel Pulido was “a sham” or “bogus.” He said de Venecia simply said the “only reason” he was inhibiting himself from referring the complaint to the justice committee was “to avoid any indication of conflict of interest that may arise considering that the same complaint also filed similar charges against (his) person.”

On Monday, de Venecia said the three-page Pulido complaint contained one page of charges against President Arroyo and two pages against him.

“He never said in this document that he was not referring the Pulido complaint to the rules committee and subsequently to the committee on justice because it was a sham or bogus complaint. This document will have to speak for itself,” Lagman noted.

The Pulido complaint accused de Venecia, among others, of interfering for his son to get the contract for the NBN project. De Venecia’s son had proposed to undertake the government’s broadband project on a build-operate-transfer (BOT) scheme but failed after the contract was awarded to ZTE on a government-to-government agreement.

Lagman sought to dispel de Venecia’s statement that President Arroyo gave P500,000 to most of her allies at the House to support what he considered as a “fraudulent” Pulido complaint in October 2007 so she could “buy legal protection for one year.”

To bolster his claim, de Venecia said he was among those who received a bag containing P500, 000 from Malacañang. The bag remains with him unopened, he said.

“It is unmistakable that only the Speaker of the House has the duty to cause the inclusion of a verified complaint for impeachment in the Order of Business within 10 days from its filing. In other words, the members of the House do not have this duty. Consequently, it could have been only the Speaker of the House who could have been bribed to assure the inclusion of the Pulido complaint in the Order of Business and its subsequent referral to the committee on justice,” Lagman pointed out.

“The referral is not one of the duties of the members of the House. It is lodged with the Speaker. Only the Speaker could have been bribed to endorse it to the justice committee,” said Lagman, who has become an ardent defender of President Arroyo in all the four impeachment complaints so far filed against her since 2005.

But de Venecia said he was undaunted by moves meant to harass him and destroy his reputation.

“I am prepared to lay my life on the line. There is no turning back,” he declared.

Suplico said de Venecia may be (called as) a state witness in the cases (that may be filed) against President Arroyo when she steps down.

“I don’t mind if Speaker de Venecia goes to jail for talking about the P500,000 bribe, as long as he stays there with President Arroyo,” said Suplico, an opposition member under de Venecia’s speakership.

On Monday, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez said giving money to congressmen was a “normal practice” at the House when de Venecia was speaker. Gonzalez served as congressman of Iloilo City for three terms under de Venecia’s leadership of the chamber. He was even a deputy speaker on his last term at the House.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile warned that de Venecia may himself be facing a criminal offense for receiving bribe money. “He was a public officer and he accepted the bribe. That is a crime. If he admitted that he was bribed, then he should be charged,” the senator from Cagayan who also once served as congressman.

Day in court

Minority leader Ronaldo Zamora lamented that the President’s allies deprived her the opportunity to have her day in court by voting down the impeachment complaint too early in the process.

“It is in the interest of the nation, it is in the interest of the President herself that the issues in this impeachment complaint be answered,” he said.

Summing up the pro-impeachment group’s arguments on Monday to declare the complaint sufficient in substance, Zamora said the process was still in a stage called “recital of facts” that meets the constitutional requirement.

It was not yet in a stage, he explained, where the committee would have to determine the innocence or guilt of President Arroyo. That stage will come during trial in the Senate after the House shall have determined that there is “probable cause” to impeach her.

“The determination of sufficiency in substance is entirely different form the determination of probable cause. That is basic. The determination of probable cause will follow only after the impeachment complaint has been found to be sufficient in both form and substance,” Zamora explained.

“We feel that in the present impeachment complaint we passed the test. The impeachment complaint contains a recital of facts constituting the offenses charged against the respondent, the President of the Philippines,” he added, citing Mrs. Arroyo’s alleged phone conversation with former Comelec commissioner Virgilio Garcillano as contained in the “Hello, Garci” tapes, and other cited incidents in the complaint.

Opposition lawmaker Joel Villanueva of the Citizens Battle Against Corruption (Cibac) party list said it was frustrating that impeachment “always appears to be just a fight of the minority, specifically of the eight members of the justice committee” who voted against the dismissal of the complaint.

“Number 8, which is in our car plates, reminds us of who we are and who we represent. I hope it’s just a coincidence and that we still have more than eight real representatives in the committee who will stand up for principle, for the people, and who will stand up every time issues of graft and corruption in government and malversation of the people’s money are raised,” he said.

Rep. Teodoro Casiño of Bayan Muna sought to divert from the legal arguments Lagman raised for the dismissal of the complaint, stressing that impeachment is a political process to hold the President accountable for her actions.

‘Meaningful’ option

He noted that in the impeachment of former President Joseph Estrada in 2000, which was endorsed by many of those allied with Arroyo now, they were not barred by legalities being raised in the present complaint.

Speaker Prospero Nograles agreed with Casiño that “impeachment is a political process, not a judicial one.”

“That’s the reason why we saw members of Congress who are not even lawyers participating in a public and transparent proceedings,” he said. But he said the current impeachment process against President Arroyo was “ill-timed” in the face of the global crisis. This, he said, could only turn the country’s conditions from bad to worse.

“We have no other meaningful option but to move on,” he declared after the President’s allies voted down the complaint.

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