POSTSCRIPT / December 12, 2002 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Piatco fiasco shows how confused we are

THE NAIA-3 RIGMAROLE: We put up a modern $650-million airport terminal, and now that it is almost ready, somebody barges in to charge that the contractor should not have been allowed to build it in the first place.

Somebody goes to court to question the build-and-operate contract, and the lawyer defending the contractor argues lengthily that the contract must be valid because somebody else wants to grab the project.

Breaking its bad habit of ruling even on business issues, the court avoids a clearcut decision and tosses the case back to the contending parties. It admonishes them to talk instead among themselves to find a solution.

Finding no relief in court, the contractor’s side says they might just go instead to Singapore to ask an arbitration body there to settle the dispute.

No wonder we have become the laughing stock of the world.

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CONFLICTING CONCLUSIONS: Meantime, nobody knows exactly when Naia-3 (Terminal-3 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport) — described by its builder as state-of-the-art without saying what or which art — will finally open.

In Congress, senators of the land take diverse positions on the dispute, the tenor and virulence of their arguments determined largely by who has been talking to them.

So we have the Blue Ribbon or investigation committee declaring null and void the Naia-3 contract now held by the Philippine International Air Terminals Co. (Piatco), while the committee on revision of laws that also looked into the same case declares it above board.

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CONFUSING CONFUSION: Such confusing confusion is not confined to our senators. In the Executive branch, the chief of one prosecution agency had declared the Piatco contract valid, but that did not stop his successor from rendering the contrary opinion that it was void ab initio.

(Such terms as ab initio, which means “from the very start” in simple English, are usually resorted to in the mistaken belief that their being sprinkled onto lawyers’ language makes them sound more erudite.)

Not to be outdone, the President joined the fray by declaring the same contract void, never mind if making judicial decisions is not found in her job description.

Oo nga naman, if justices presume to impose business decisions on businessmen before them, and if lawmakers whose job is to make laws intrude into the Executive’s domain by awarding contracts and building bridges, and if Cabinet members think their titles allude to secret cabinets crammed with dirty dollars… why begrudge the President’s trying her hand at dishing out judicial decisions?

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TAN THE STRAW MAN: A lawyer vigorously defended the Piatco contract to build Terminal-3 by warning the Supreme Court that somebody else, taipan Lucio Tan, wanted to grab the contract from his client.

That was a novel legal theory: That when somebody wants to take away your contract, your contract must be valid! None of the justices thought of telling him not to waste their time by discussing personalities who are not even a party to the contract.

The lawyer went on and on, dwelling on the personality of Lucio Tan, not the law. It was as if he was warning the honorable justices subliminally that if they voided the Piatco contract, they could be suspected of having been bribed by Tan.

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OUR OWN ORDEAL: This reminds us of our own experience when I was once a party in a case elevated to the Court of Appeals.

We had sued in a lower court for unjust vexation in connection with our illegal dismissal from a news organization several forgettable years ago. Rebuffed by the lower court, the lawyer of the defendant took the case to the Court of Appeals where his friends and associates waited.

For the first time in my life I was in the august chamber of the Court of Appeals. We have heard of how that court operates, but I was still shocked by the court scene that unfolded before us.

That personal experience became part of the legal education of this non-lawyer.

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HAIL TO THE HEROINE!: The defense lawyer, an ageing de campanilla practitioner who talked pa-este-este to emphasize his cacique roots, went straight to his point. He did not bother to cite the law, but proceeded with a flourish with a discussion of the personalities involved. Personalities!

Here was hired help (meaning us the plaintiff), he told the two justices hearing the case, who dared question the power of professional life and death of their employer (the defendant).

The honorable justices knew already, but he reminded them in his spiel that his client was a revered figure at EDSA, one of those brave souls he said who dared to cry out and march in the streets against the dictator.

Here was the champion of the free press carrying the torch for all of us, he said in effect, blah blah blah and these (us) hirelings of hers presume to defy her person and question her authority to rule over the business.

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FLAUNTED IT: Even with the system stacked against us, we knew that under the law we had a fighting chance. But then the debate hinged not on the law, but on personalities and we did not have the social status, the means and the connections that the other party had.

In the clash of the ruling class and workers, who wins in our courts? You know the answer to that. But the galling thing is that they flaunted it in open court.

Btw, days after the heroine of EDSA won her case against us, her lawyer feted the justices, giving them awards and things. They even had the temerity to have the awarding program reported in the papers!

Actually this is all supposedly forgotten, with me even grateful that I went through that enlightening episode. With that and similar brushes with our courts, I now have a better perspective of our alleged justice system.

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SPLIT THE DECISION: Back to the Piatco deal. Many of the statements and judgments on the Piatco contract(s) do not specify which contract(s) is/are being referred to as valid or void. The contract has undergone so many revisions that whoever wrote the original version would no longer recognize the amended and restated contract now being questioned.

If I were the Supreme Court, I would distinguish between the original contract and the amended versions.

I would then declare as valid the original contract awarded to Piatco after it made a successful Swiss challenge to the contract given to the so-called Asian Emerging Dragons (several taipans brought together to build a modern airport on the prodding of then President Fidel V. Ramos).

But I will void the succeeding versions of the contract embodying the substantial amendments that are now being denounced as onerous and illegal.

It is important that the government shows to the world that we honor contracts. But while we uphold the original contract, we must not allow the appalling greed running through the amended and restated contract.

Such a decision will not please everybody, but everybody will go home with a piece of the Piatco pizza.

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OPLE DEFENDS GMA: Ka Blas Ople, the venerable secretary of foreign affairs, disagrees with our observation that President Arroyo seems to be losing control of her Cabinet and would have even less control if members of the opposition were appointed to it.

In a letter, Ka Blas, who has been in the Cabinet for almost five months now, says: “The President is in full control… She leads her Cabinet by setting high moral standards and uncompromising work ethics. In other words, she leads by example. She has a clear idea of the direction she wants to take and the determination to get where she is going. She has vision, resolve and purpose.”

As a former stalwart of the opposition, Ka Blas said that he saw no problem with opposition members joining the administration: “The Cabinet is composed of people with very diverse backgrounds representing a wide spectrum of political beliefs and professional competencies. The President is able to lead and focus the creative energies of her Cabinet.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 12, 2002)

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