POSTSCRIPT / September 17, 2013 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Filing of plunder cases starts cleansing process

DEEP-CLEANSING: The filing yesterday of complaints for plunder, malversation, bribery and corruption against eight lawmakers, businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles, and 29 others for allegedly stealing billions in pork barrel funds starts a deep-cleansing process.

Pursued relentlessly, the prosecution could expose, and then pluck out, the leeches sucking the lifeblood of the sick system. The filing of complaints by itself is not the cure, or the only remedy, to the long-festering cancer — but could lead to it in a big way.

Properly applied, this is one time when the obstinacy of President Noynoy Aquino is likely to pay dividends as he pursues his reformist line in governance.

In the same way that we presume the innocence of all the accused, we assume the good faith of the President in causing the filing of the complaints with the Office of the Ombudsman.

Let nobody bungle the case.

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VARIOUS POINTS: Here are some thoughts on the multiple complaints brought before the Ombudsman for preliminary investigation:

• Although more than 150 sitting and former legislators have been linked to the PDAF or pork barrel scam and tagged as likely respondents, it seems opposition senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramon Revilla Jr. and Jinggoy Ejercito and five former congressmen are being made the first samples.

• The accused individuals include personnel of Executive offices and implementing agencies, a detail that answers partly the observation that plunder cannot be committed without the collusion of Executive officers.

• But no one from the Department of Budget and Management was accused or implicated despite the fact that the DBM is the grand central of fund movements in government and which is in the best position to spot irregularities and nip/abet misuse of public funds.

• Can the supposedly independent Ombudsman shake off her bias (imbibed as part of a three-member presidential team that oversaw the NBI investigation) before she turns around, changes costume and sits as an impartial state prosecutor sifting through the evidence?

• It will take years before the complaints ripen into formal charges before the Sandiganbayan (the graft court), considering the truckload of documentary evidence and the number of accused, each one putting up a personal defense, plus the gold-plated lawyers jostling for stellar attention.

• The procedural delay may give President Aquino time to recalculate his speed and direction as he navigates the political shoals. It will not be unusual if presidential friends and advisers suggest a calibrated handling of some of the accused facing suspension as prelude to reclusion perpetua.

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RESPONSIBILITY: In discussions where there were objections to legislators’ selecting PDAF projects and contractors, it was pointed out that the job of senators and congressmen is lawmaking and not building infrastructure — this being the responsibility of the Executive branch.

This makes sense, because after the Congress approves the budget bill and the President signs it, the Executive branch comes in to build infrastructure and other projects according to the criteria and safeguards provided by law.

As the authority tasked to implement the budget, it was pointed out, the Executive is responsible for seeing to it that the prioritizing and the allocation and disbursement of funds are done according to law and good practice.

That task includes ensuring that the Non-Government Organizations and executive agencies that had been selected to pursue the projects are existing and qualified.

Ergo, the reasoning went, somebody in the Executive department must answer for the corruption, the negligence and the violation of the spending safeguards written into the law.

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SUSPENSION: A minor debate ensued yesterday in social media after Senate President Franklin Drilon said in a forum and in a TV interview that lawmakers accused in the pork barrel case would not be suspended with the filing of plunder complaints.

Many texters and posters on Twitter could not agree if the senators and congressmen accused before the Ombudsman should be arrested, detained and/or suspended.

Cited was the plunder law (RA 7080) whose Section 5 says: “Any public officer against whom any criminal prosecution under a valid information under this Act in whatever stage of execution and mode of participation, is pending in court, shall be suspended from office.”

Most of the discussants were for suspending the accused lawmakers, but a few pointed out that while suspension was mandatory, it was not automatic. They cited the section in the Constitution leaving it to the two chambers of the Congress to discipline their respective erring members.

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SLOW PACE: Many of the discussants missed the point that the suspension of public officers mandated in Section 5 is conditioned on the charge being plunder whose threshold is P50 million and that the correct charge has been validly filed with the court (Sandiganbayan).

Yesterday, the information or complaint was filed not yet in the Sandiganbayan, but only — as it should — with the Office of the Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman is equivalent to the state prosecutor who conducts preliminary investigation of regular criminal complaints to determine if the iinformation warrants filing in court. The Ombudsman is not yet the court or the Sandiganbayan contemplated in Section 5 mandating suspension.

As has been pointed out, the investigation by the Ombudsman may take years — if we are to take as basis, for instance, the four-year old Ampatuan massacre in Maguindanao where the several accused are still in different stages of investigation or prosecution.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 17, 2013)

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