POSTSCRIPT / December 19, 2000 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Delay tactic on Valhalla enables thief to get away

EVEN in the seemingly harmless matter of reciting an invocation at the start of the proceedings, the impeachment court should be careful that no hint of partisanship creeps in.

Yesterday, senator-judge Tessie Oreta read an invocation that recalled the “mob” screaming for the blood of Christ and sort of drew a parallel to the predicament of President Estrada standing accused before the Senate.

That was a cheap shot, if we heard her right, but coming from one of the balato twins, we understand.

But we commiserate with the lady senator in her lament that one newspaper reported her as one of the senators allegedly frequenting Malacañang “to discuss with the defense lawyers the strategies that they will use during the impeachment proceedings.”

This is not true, she said, and we believe her.

* * *

AFTER asking last month what legally constitutes “two-thirds of all the members” of the Senate, we considered petitioning the Supreme Court for a definitive answer, but then we realized that we did not have a cause of action.

We cannot go running to the high tribunal every time we need a legal opinion on a hypothetical situation. Dispensing legal opinion or doing somebody’s homework is not the function of the court.

* * *

SUPPOSE at the end of the impeachment hearing only 12 senators vote for conviction of President Estrada. What happens?

In this scenario, the question of what is a two-thirds vote for conviction would not arise since 12 is definitely way below two-thirds of the Senate membership regardless of how “two-thirds” is interpreted — whether based on the original full 24 membership, or on the 22 actual warm bodies, or only on the 21 senators who had taken their oath as judges in the trial.

But if 15 senators vote for conviction and the pro-Estrada bloc says that is not enough since two-thirds of the 24 full membership in the chamber is 16, then we do have reason to go to the Supreme Court.

We’re among those itching to know the crucial answer to the “two-thirds” question. But asking the tribunal at this point is, we think, somewhat premature as there is no judiciable scenario yet.

* * *

AS we write this, Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. is announcing that the senator-judges have decided in their caucus to postpone until today deciding whether to agree or disagree with Davide’s ruling to open the records of the Valhalla account with the Equitable-PCI Bank.

The issue of opening the bank records raises various legal questions, but to us laymen the simple bottom-line question has been: If President Estrada is indeed innocent and has nothing to do with the account, why is he objecting?

Nobody, not the President, not even his brilliant lawyer Estelito Mendoza, has been able to answer this question on the lips of virtually everybody.

* * *

THE studied silence of the President, the stalling by the defense and the postponement of the senators’ action on Davide’s ruling has caused enough delay to enable presidential friend Jaime Dichaves to prepare for his suddenly announcing that he owned the account.

He came out only after a newspaper named him as the person who had opened the questioned account with the Binondo branch of the Equitable-PCIB and after a number of bank personnel have started to talk.

Had the affirmation of Davide’s ruling not been stalled, the records could have been opened yesterday amid legal fireworks, cramping the defense’s chance to maneuver.

The delay has allowed various forces to slip in and muddle the picture. It has also emboldened other banks that had received subpoenas to resist or at least to stall.

* * *

THE delayed introduction of Dichaves through a letter of his lawyer to the impeachment court seemed to have pushed the President one layer away from the line of fire. After all, Dichaves is not Joseph Ejercito Estrada.

Despite the stonewalling, we expect the prosecution to try piercing the rather flimsy layer and erase the line separating the President and Dichaves who the prosecution regards as merely a fall guy.

Dichaves may have to produce the Jose Valhalla (or Velarde?) who had signed the P142-million check drawn from his account to pay for the Boracay mansion allegedly intended for a mistress of the President and her children by him.

* * *

ONE handicap of the prosecution is that despite the attitude of the defense that they have before them a criminal case, the President has not been suspended preventively. The entire arsenal of presidential powers could be used to stall and frustrate the prosecution.

Normally, officials facing serious charges are suspended to prevent their possibly intimidating witnesses, tampering with documents or otherwise use their office to influence the proceedings.

In fact, many people are asking if the billions being spent to save the neck of Joseph Ejercito Estrada are tax money. It seems unfair that the people are paying for the defense of a man against whom they had filed charges.

But this is no ordinary accused. This is the President of the Republic, whatever you think of him.

* * *

HOUSEKEEPING: The Senate sentinels should require all persons entering the session hall, without exception, to deposit their cellular telephones. Those who refuse should be barred…

Sleepy senator-judges should be allowed to wear dark glasses and fasten seat belts to prevent their honors from falling off…

The stenographers should be instructed to delete “your honor” and its variations from transcripts of the proceedings so as to effect savings of as much as 20 percent in the paper used for the minutes…

The prosecution may want to check their desks for bugging devices…

The TV stations should be admonished not to insert snore sound effects when their cameras zero in on Sen. Ramon Revilla in an impeachable pose.

* * *

JESSE Berst of cgi.zdnet says: “With $65 billion in personal wealth, what does a man like (Microsoft boss) Bill Gates really need? I’ll tell you: A conscience.”

This sets us musing… with the presidency in his pocket, not to mention the billions said to go with it, what is the perfect Christmas gift for Joseph Ejercito Estrada?

Readers who want to respond to the question are asked to write a brief paragraph explaining their choice of gift for the President. As usual, we also ask them to indicate their personal circumstances of age, sex and location.

Kindly write “ERAP GIFT” on the subject line of your email, or on the envelope of your posted mail, to expedite our separating the responses from the rest of the mail.

* * *

AS the last weekend came right after payday and the giving of bonuses, there was a more than usual crowd at the malls the past three days.

Still we have many friends and relatives who told us that unless an expense is urgent, they have postponed purchases and refused to join the mob (that word again!) in the marketplace.

They explained that they want to hold on to their money until they are clear how the ongoing impeachment trial would end.

There is a widespread fear that an acquittal of the President might trigger some unrest and, in such a situation, many people want to have enough money on hand. In fact, we know of some people who had withdrawn their money from the banks and are keeping it until the impeachment storm blows over.

* * *

THIS is just a small indicator of the damage wrought by the impeachment case on the nation’s economic fabric.

A more visible disruption, although we tend to treat it lightly, is the apparent coming to a standstill of many activities from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday when the blockbuster Senate show goes on air and people cluster around TVs and radios.

The hearings have been counter-productive, from the economic point of view. But what can we do? It is a bed of burning coal that this nation has to walk through, hoping to come out cleansed and bursting with resolve to do better.

* * *

MANY readers have written, almost in anger, how for the past two decades we have allowed the late dictator Marcos, as well as his family and cronies, to get away with it.

There was overwhelming evidence left when the Marcoses scampered out of harm’s way, but two administrations claiming to be reformist failed miserably to satisfy the people’s cry for justice.

After the monumental bungling by the Presidential Commission on Good Government and the Tanodbayan to put the thieves behind bars, there is now a similar cry, a plea, that we make sure we nail the new thief this time.

If we fail again, maybe we’re indeed a hopeless case. Then maybe we should consider joining the long line of our countrymen applying for immigrant visas for foreign lands.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 19, 2000)

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