POSTSCRIPT / February 10, 2002 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Impeachment too deadly: Keep away from children

HOUSE DIVIDED, DISTRACTED: We wonder why congressmen are allowing themselves to be distracted and divided by machine-gun impeachment complaints that cannot even hurdle procedural requirements. The House should rise against attempts to trivialize the constitutional process of impeachment.

We cite the case of Ombudsman Aniano Desierto, who is facing two simultaneous impeachment complaints before the House of Representatives.

The mere fact of two complaints being entertained simultaneously is itself an anomaly, because the Constitution prohibits the filing of a second impeachment complaint against the same official within 12 months of the first.

Section 3(5), Article XI, says: “No impeachment proceedings shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a period of one year.”

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WHEN TO START COUNTING: As the minutes of the Constitutional Commission show and as several former ConCom delegates affirm, the counting of the one-year period begins upon the filing of the verified complaint — not upon the promulgation of the resolution of the House committee and neither upon the plenary action of the entire House.

As ConCom delegate Regalado Maambong says in so many words, (1) the filing with the committee is the initiation of the complaint, (2) the committee action is investigation, and (3) the chamber’s action is disposition.

Other delegates recalling the ConCom proceedings note the same various stages that an impeachment complaint goes through. To them, the process is deemed “initiated” upon filing of the verified complaint.

Once the verified impeachment complaint (assuming it is satisfactory in form) is filed and received, the counting of the one-year period within which no other complaint can be filed against the same official begins.

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THREE-MONTH GAP: The first verified complaint against Desierto was filed on Nov. 27, 2001, or less than three months ago. The complaint was thrown out by the House committee on justice as lacking in substance.

The complainant is now trying to pump life into the cadaver of the first case by asking the chamber to overturn the adverse committee decision by one-third vote (at least 73 of all congressmen).

Meantime, however, the complainant has filed a second case against Desierto over the Ombudsman’s handling of a tax credit scam. The complaint is now with the committee on justice, which has started action on it.

Simultaneously, the complainant is now busy gathering the signatures of 73 congressmen to perfect the complaint and elevate the charges automatically to the Senate for hearing.

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SIGNATURE DRIVE TOO LATE: But this attempt to gather that many signatures appears to be too late to save the second complaint from its fatal flaw.

Rule IV of the House rules of procedure on impeachment is crystal clear: “The complaint/resolution must, at the time of filing, be verified and sworn to before the Secretary General by each of the Members who constitute at least one-third of all the Members of the House.” (Underscoring ours)

This means that the signatures must have been already affixed at the time of the filing of the complaint. If the complainant and his friends among the congressmen are gathering the signatures only now, after the verified complaint has been filed, it is too late under Rule IV.

New 73 signatures may be useful if a third impeachment complaint were to be filed, strictly following the rules this time, but that would be further complicating an already complex error.

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MATTER OF OPINION: Assuming the complaint is not doomed by these procedural defects, the next problem would be that the substance of the complaint itself is actually just a matter of opinion.

What the complainant is actually saying is that Desierto has been bungling the prosecution of the multi-billion-peso tax credit scam and must therefore be impeached for violating the public trust.

Desierto can simply say “No, I’m not bungling it” and that’s it. It’s all a matter of opinion. At this point, nobody knows if Desierto’s legal strategy is good or bad. Only the court, after it renders its final judgment on the tax cases, can tell the world more or less if Desierto’s approach was right or wrong.

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WIN SOME, LOSE SOME: Even granting the Office of the Ombudsman loses the tax cases and is seen in the end to be no match for the lawyers, resources and connections of the defendants in the tax cases, that does not necessarily mean that Desierto violated the public trust.

Lawyers win or lose court cases. When they lose, it does not necessarily mean they sold out. In this case, nobody knows if the Ombudsman will win or lose the tax cases. Suppose Desierto wins?

In other words, it is premature to say at this point that Desierto has bungled the job or has sold out to the other party and must therefore be impeached.

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KEEP WAY FROM CHILDREN: One lesson here is that the House should not accept just any piece of paper denouncing an impeachable officer.

Impeachment as a constitutional weapon against really bad officials should not be trivialized. Like a gun, it should not be left lying around, or placed in the hands of just anybody, or pulled out and cocked with every rustle in the bushes.

This is not a brief for Desierto, but for the sane exercise of the solemn power to impeach abusive officials. We hope the House under Speaker Jose de Venecia will see the problem that has divided the chamber and distracted it from its primordial function of making laws. The entire House is being dragged down by a case so carelessly filed.

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LICENSE RULE RILES READERS: The howl raised by Postscript readers against the practice of some private subdivisions or villages barring motorists (1) who are not residents, or (2) who refuse to surrender their driver’s licenses at the gate, or (3) who refuse to buy windshield stickers has generated interesting sidebars.

Our contention and that of most of our responding readers is that after taxpayers’ money is spent on a road in a private subdivision, that road becomes a public road and must be made accessible to taxpayers.

A private subdivision cannot accept public funds for the maintenance or upgrading of its roads and at the same time bar some taxpayers for any of the three reasons cited above. But some subdivisions or villages with such publicly maintained roads are still harassing non-residents who want to drive in.

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VILLAR PROJECT HIT: We received a followup email from Josie Bernabe (yahoo.com) reporting that in BF Resort Village in Las Piñas a battle royal has erupted between Rep. Cynthia Villar (allied with Mayor Nene Aguilar and Vice Mayor Louie Bustamante) and the homeowners association board.

Villar et al. have started another road improvement project at the main entrance to the village, but the homeowners board put up streamers proclaiming their “strong objections” to what it said was just a terminal for tricycles.

Bernabe said that past road improvement projects of Mayor Aguilar were not similarly opposed, including the mayor’s inclusion of some village streets in his “Friendship Route.” She asks if the homeowners can now say “No” after having accepted previous City Hall aid.

She suggested that Mrs. Villar respect the sensibilities of the homeowners and put up her tricycle terminal outside the village. Whatever she has started to build on that road, she said, can probably be redesigned and devoted to ornamental trees and plants.

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STERN OBJECTORS: We chanced upon a media group that included Willie Nepomuceno, Ben Evardone and Linggoy Alcuaz (he of destabilization fame) and they echoed motorists’ demand that the practice of licenses having to be surrendered at village gates be stopped.

Willie Nep said there have been cases of licenses being lost by the village guards. Ben noted that even traffic officers do not, or must not, confiscate driver’s licenses — “what more with private guards at subdivisions?”

Linggoy said he has always refused to surrender his license with village guards. What he does, he said, is hand over an ID (not his license) and stay put until his ID is accepted — never mind if a long line of drivers behind him blow their horns for him to move on.

The debate over licenses and stickers at private villages must come to a head.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 10, 2002)

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