POSTSCRIPT / January 11, 2001 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Is the impeachment court still interested in the truth?

ANYBODY with average intelligence who has been religiously following the impeachment trial cannot help noticing the ill-disguised conspiracy to stop revelations that may damn President Estrada.

Ano ba talaga? What is the whole point of this constitutional process? Is it not that we want to find out if President Estrada is guilty of (1) bribery, (2) graft and corruption, (3) betrayal of public trust, and (4) culpable violation of the Constitution?

If we really want to find out, if we want the whole truth, why is the impeachment tribunal allowing the wholesale suppression of reasonable and relevant revelations about President Estrada?

* * *

IT is normal for the President’s defense lawyers to do everything possible to protect their client, but for senators sitting as judges to help derail the presentation of evidence and to cover up for their friend and benefactor in Malacañang is abominable.

It is unthinkable that the impeachment court itself would restrict the flow of information and block evidence through the overly strict application of so-called rules. This detracts from the primary purpose of the process, which is to find the truth.

Why is the tribunal so finicky (pronounced panicky) about coming face to face with the truth?

* * *

SINCE the trial is not a criminal proceeding but mainly a people’s review of its mandate to the President, the Senate as the hearing body has adopted the guideline (Rule VI) that while the usual rules of evidence and procedures are to be used, they “shall be liberally construed.”

It appears, however, that the court has been drifting away from this liberal intention and has been too strict, too restrictive, in applying the rules.

We need rules all right. But rules should facilitate, not frustrate, the constitutional process. Rules are not meant to hide the truth, but to expose it whoever gets hurt.

* * *

IT took an old soldier, among others, to point out that while the rights of the accused, in this case the President, are protected under the Constitution, these are basically his rights to life, liberty and property.

Rodolfo Biazon, a retired general who has faded into politics as a senator, noted that the life, liberty and property of President Estrada are not threatened by his answering searching questions nor by witnesses’ telling the truth and submitting evidence.

* * *

UNDER the Constitution, the supreme penalty for an impeached president is simply removal from office and his being barred from ever holding a public office. He is not to be jailed, fined, given a lethal injection nor his controversial property confiscated.

However heinous is the President’s crime, the impeachment court finding him guilty will not and cannot impose any penalty that will deprive him of his life, property or liberty. It can only kick him out and keep him out.

In this enlightened context, it seems to this non-lawyer that the right of the people to know the truth about their President is more compelling than the right of this President to hide behind his lawyers and invoke technicalities to prevent the presentation of evidence.

* * *

TO us plain folk whose thinking is not cluttered by legalistic rote, the trial is nothing but a simple search for truth. We just want to see the whole truth about the President and we don’t want anybody or anything blocking our view.

If subterfuge or a post in the Senate hall blocks our view, we will have to lean to one side or crane our necks to see it all — rules or no darn rules.

In this search for truth, no demented senator loaded with fancy diplomas, thick reference books and a distracting accent can stop us.

* * *

NO legal gobbledygook, if we may borrow the term over the objection of the purists in the honorable court, can be thrown at us to becloud our appreciation of the truth.

Take, for instance, the testimony and the hard evidence submitted by Equitable PCI Bank senior vice president Clarissa Ocampo on one Jose Velarde, a bank client. Until now, the court has refused to accept the evidence.

Because it is not flattering to His Excellency President Estrada and because the defense lawyers are spitting out objections after objections?

As we’ve said, it is normal for the defense lawyers to protect their client. It is their duty. But why should the court join in and allow itself to be inveigled by the defense’s gobbledygook?

Here is a credible witness testifying in response to a subpoena of the court, yet the court does not want to accept her testimony on the mere say-so of the defense. What logic is this? Why must truth, which is right there before us, be tortured first before we accept it?

* * *

THE only argument of the defense is its stock objection that the matter being presented is irrelevant and immaterial to the charges.

Here are clean, original bank records showing that Joseph Ejercito Estrada maintains a bank account as Jose Velarde. Here is evidence that President Estrada has at least P500 million hidden in just one bank account while declaring under oath that his net worth is only P35 million.

Now comes the defense saying that the evidence is irrelevant and immaterial to the graft and corruption charges. And the wonder of it all is that the court agrees that it is indeed irrelevant and immaterial, at least for the moment.

* * *

CAN anything be more material to graft charges than a formal document of an official’s possessing valuable assets, and in cash!, grossly out of proportion to his legitimate income?

Even a grade school kid who can do simple multiplication and division can tell that the disproportion between 500 and 35 is gross. Yet the venerable judges appear to have swallowed the self-serving objection that the evidence is irrelevant!

We realize that the proceedings could be boring at times, but cannot the members of the honorable court please keep awake when something as important as a smoking gun turns up?

* * *

WHAT the defense lawyers’ gobbledygook actually means is that the Jose Velarde bank account mentioned was not on the list submitted by the prosecution in the charge sheet.

They are saying in effect that as the Velarde account was not specifically listed, it is irrelevant and we should not pay attention to it. And the court, or at least the overworked presiding officer, agrees with this strange logic, this atrocious misuse of the adjective “irrelevant.”

With due respect, the members of the court should be more sophisticated than that. Their minds should break away from lazy legalistic rote, and soar. They should keep going back to their own guideline that the rules of evidence “shall be liberally construed.”

If the impeachment court still needs an excuse for doing the right thing, it is that the bottom line in this trial is that the people are entitled to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So help us God!

* * *

WHAT’S going on in the august chamber? It’s already January 2001, the first year of the new millennium!

As a result of the sharp questioning of Sen. Loren Legarda Leviste, bank officer Ocampo was asked to bring to the Senate the documents showing the attempt to replace ab initio the telltale name Jose Velarde with that of a willing Jaime Dichaves, and Ocampo said yes, your honor.

But, your honor, until now, Ocampo has not been called back with the incriminating documents. Meantime, the President’s stuffy stunt men in the Senate swear that they want the truth.

* * *

THIS “I’m willing to testify” bit of the Estrada’s is becoming boring. Despite that brave front, the Estrada’s would never take the witness stand — and the apparent reason is that they are afraid that the truth might just spill out like a can of worms.

The latest to mouth the line was First Lady Loi Ejercito reacting to a charge that she had deposited in her bank account two checks amounting to P8.4-million in jueteng payola from Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis “Chavit” Singson.

She was quoted as saying she is ready to testify on the matter. She was probably telling that to the marines, not to the media.

* * *

BEFORE her, husband Joseph had also been saying automatically whenever a microphone was thrust to his face that he would testify. The media failed, of course, to pick up the faint aside “…if my lawyers would allow me.”

Earlier, we remember San Juan Mayor and senator-wannabe Jinggoy Estrada promising in a formal letter to the Senate that he would also testify. After he signed the letter, he boarded a jet to sit out the storm in the United States.

But the honorable senators, as expected, seem to have forgotten about this promise of Jinggoy to testify. As in the earlier Senate investigation of Sweepstakes resources being channeled to a foundation of the First Lady, senators seem to have special velvet kid gloves for her and, as it turns out, for the rest of the anak ng jueteng.

Does this preferential treatment extend also to the extended presidential families? It seems it does. They have not been summoned despite the avowed search for truth and their obvious relevance to the corruption of the presidency.

If we cannot do this impeachment trial right, why don’t we just call it off?

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 11, 2001)

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