THE ONGOING showdown between the Presidential Commission on Good Government and the Senate, which is investigating the dissipation of assets owned by the government-sequestered Philippine Communication Satellite (Philcomsat) Corp., would be laughable if it were not so serious.
PCGG Chairman Camilo Sabio was arrested on Monday on order of the Senate after refusing to testify before a Senate committee probing the misuse of funds at Philcomsat. Sabio, and other PCGG commissioners, most notably Ricardo Abcede, have invoked Executive Order No. 1 as their reason for refusing to appear before the Senate. They claim that EO No. 1 shields them from legislative inquiries, but just this Thursday Sabio admitted in a hearing before the Supreme Court that PCGG members did not in fact enjoy supreme immunity from investigation.
This whole drama started weeks ago when the Senate asked PCGG commissioners to appear before it and explain why so many assets of Philcomsat were being misused. Chief among these were a brand new 2006 Toyota Camry paid for by Philcomsat but delivered to the home of Abcede for his official use. PCGG commissioners claim they have a right to such perks for serving on the boards of the many sequestered companies suspected of being owned by Marcos cronies. But to me, and many others, this smells of corruption and obvious conflict of interest.A colleague of mine suggested that the government form another commission to police the actions of PCGG commissioners, but that would be idiotic. It’s as if we needed a higher body to check on what Supreme Court justices were doing was moral and correct. If we adopt that approach we will end up being paranoid and not trusting anyone.
When the PCGG was formed by President Corazon Aquino in 1986 to recuperate as much as possible of the Marcos loot, hopes were high that hundreds of millions of pesos, if not billions, in assets would be recovered and fill the government coffers with much needed cash. Victims of Marcos brutality also hoped that they would eventually get compensation for their suffering in jails where they were tortured and held incommunicado for months and years during martial law. They are still waiting for a payout.
Through all of this, Imelda Marcos has been elected to Congress once, and remains free while she appeals scores of corruption cases filed against her. She has not spent even a night in jail, and is even thinking of running for Manila mayor next year.
As government-controlled assets, it is in the public interest that the PCGG make sure that sequestered companies keep running smoothly and profitably. But all too often, clashes between the PCGG members and Marcos cronies on the boards of these companies have led to nasty showdowns that have spilt into the public arena. It would be much better if no PCGG commissioner was allowed to serve on the board of any sequestered company. Instead, they should appoint trusted independent business executives to represent the government’s interest on the boards of these firms. That way any conflict of interest between the PCGG as regulator and recoverer of looted state money, and the interests of the companies involved, would be clearly avoided.
The scene of Sabio being detained in the Senate and of having his blood pressure shoot up and his consequent check-up in hospital, is an all too familiar one when the Senate arrests and imprisons those flouting its orders to testify before it. But this should not distract from the legitimate right and duty that the Senate has to investigate corruption and wrongdoing by government officials.
Hiding behind EO No. 1 is not going to work, and it is unfortunate that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has told all her government officials to use this excuse in order to avoid being questioned by senators deemed hostile by the administration.
I found the following exchange between Sabio and Associate Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez at the Supreme Court on Thursday, as reported by INQ7.net, quite telling:"Why did you not appear before the Senate? Are you afraid they might ask questions about the losses incurred by your commission or of this corporation?" Sandoval-Gutierrez asked.
"My arrest was illegal...I did nothing wrong except I do not want to testify," Sabio said."Why is your arrest illegal?" Gutierrez asked.
"It could impede our efforts to recover ill-gotten wealth," Sabio said, referring to the PCGG’s mandate under Executive Order No. 1 to recover the ill-gotten wealth of the late president Ferdinand Marcos and his family.
Sabio admitted later in his testimony however that immunity of the PCGG from legislative inquiries as provided under Section 4(b) of EO No. 1 was not absolute.
I think that the Supreme Court will uphold the Senate’s right to question government officials when there is suspicion of corruption and malfeasance. Sabio, Abcede and all the other PCGG commissioners are not above the law, and instead of accepting brand new cars from sequestered companies and dancing with Imelda in public, the PCGG would do well to keep its image squeaky clean and above all suspicion.
But most important of all, the Filipino people want to see some closure in all of these Marcos cases. It’s been 20 years since the Marcoses were ousted from power and what does the government have to show for it? Nothing much except for high-living PCGG officials and Imelda along her cronies laughing all the way as they skip to the bank.