MANILA, Philippines - The Senate will not prevent the arrest of three of its members accused of plunder in the pork barrel fund scam.
Senate President Franklin Drilon said Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramon Revilla Jr. and Jinggoy Estrada could be placed under preventive suspension by the Sandiganbayan, apart from ordering their arrest once the Office of the Ombudsman files charges.
Drilon said his three colleagues could not be forced to go on leave because this is a matter “addressed to their conscience, for their own judgment.”
However, if the Sandiganbayan issues a preventive suspension order, it would be another matter altogether, he said.
“If there is a warrant of arrest and there is an order to suspend them from the Senate, the situation would definitely change. Since this is a non-bailable offense, they will be under detention by the Sandiganbayan, and they will be ordered suspended from the Senate by the Sandiganbayan,” Drilon said.
The Office of the Ombudsman on Tuesday announced the filing of plunder charges against Enrile, Revilla and Estrada over the pork barrel scam.
However, the three senators could still wait for another month or more since no arrest warrants will be issued until after the plunder and graft charges are actually filed with the Sandiganbayan.
And considering the three senators and all their fellow respondents to the cases have five days to file motions for reconsideration and ask for a reversal of the finding of probable cause to indict them, there is still a chance, though slim, that the criminal complaints will not reach the anti-graft court.
Assistant Ombudsman and spokesman Asryman Rafanan explained the charges would not yet be forwarded to the Sandiganbayan.
He said that motions for reconsideration, if any are filed, will have to first be resolved by the same special panel of investigators who handled the probe before an indictment is made.
Under the procedures, once the Office of the Ombudsman files a complaint before the Sandiganbayan, the cases will await raffle, which is regularly conducted every Friday, and once a division of the anti-graft court receives a case, the issuance of a warrant of arrest is expected.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said the three senators who will be charged before the Sandiganbayan should be suspended immediately after their arrest warrants are served.
“That’s automatic under the law. Once the ombudsman files a case in court, which is the Sandiganbayan in this case, automatically, instantaneously, the public official is suspended from public office since plunder is exclusive only to public officials,” Santiago said.
“Once the case is filed in court, automatically the senator goes to jail and the senator stops being senator, in other words is suspended from public office,” she added.
Sen. Francis Escudero said once a court issues a preventive suspension order, there should be no more debate as to whether this would be followed.
“No one is above the law, not even the Senate, not even the House of Representatives,” he said.
Escudero pointed out preventive suspension is not automatic upon the issuance of the warrant of arrest against a legislator.
According to Escudero, suspension of senators in particular would only be automatic if a case is brought against them before the ethics committee and there is a final decision.
Someone could also ask for a senator to be suspended and if this gets the support of two-thirds of the members of the Senate, then the suspension would also be enforced.
Escudero said he expects the senators involved to bring the case up to the Supreme Court if ever the Sandiganbayan does come out with preventive suspension orders.
Santiago, on the other hand, said the accused senators have the option to bring the resolution of the ombudsman to the appellate court to try to avoid detention.
However, she said that securing a restraining order in this particular case would be very difficult because in plunder, “we always assume the evidence is strong.”
Estrada, on the other hand, said he would file a motion for reconsideration on Monday.
“We file a motion this Monday because my lawyers have received the joint resolution coming from the ombudsman. While I expect that (the motion) will eventually be dismissed, we will exert all legal remedies,” Estrada said.
Estrada, who is in Los Angeles for a brief vacation, also vowed to return to the country to face what he described as politically motivated charges leveled against him and his two Senate colleagues.
Estrada said he is unfazed by the possibility that he will be arrested on plunder charges.
Former president and now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada said he is confident that his son Jinggoy will be able to defend himself.
“The court is the proper forum to prove the innocence of any accused,” he said.
Don’t stop there
Vice President Jejomar Binay said the filing of cases against government officials involved in the pork barrel fund scam should not stop with those who are not political allies of the administration.
“If it stops with the filing of the plunder cases against three senators who are not political allies …it will create the impression of being selective, and that political partisanship – not justice – is the sole motivation behind these charges,” Binay said.
The so-called independent bloc of lawmakers in the House of Representatives also called on the administration to move on to the prosecution of its allies.
Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, leader of the independent bloc, hit the apparent persecution waged by the administration against its political opponents.
“We protest the deliberate delays in the filing of complaints and charges against Palace allies whose names have been mentioned in the pork barrel scam. The political persecution against critics through government’s color blind attitude must stop now,” Romualdez said.
Malacañang, however, downplayed insinuations that the administration is only persecuting members of the political opposition.
“Let the evidence direct the course of the inquiry,” Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. of the Presidential Communications Operations Office said.
Coloma reiterated the charges against the three senators have nothing to do with politics.
“The Department of Justice, the National Bureau of Investigation are mandated to gather the evidence. The process has been properly observed,” Coloma said.
The two supposed state witnesses included in the plunder charges with the three senators could still get immunity.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said Ruby Tuason and outgoing Technology Resource Center (TRC) chief Dennis Cunanan have not lost their bid for immunity.
De Lima said there was nothing wrong in their inclusion in the complaint.
“That’s the correct process – to determine first the liability of the respondents. If it was determined that they have no liability, then their bid to become state witness will become irrelevant,” she explained.
De Lima said she expects the ombudsman to decide soon on their application for immunity and their bid to become state witness.
As for the bid of Senator Revilla seeking relief from the Supreme Court (SC) to stop his indictment, De Lima said it would be up to the high court to decide whether the anti-graft body’s resolution had already rendered the lawmaker’s petition moot and academic.
“Let’s just leave it up to the SC to decide… However, there is no legal impediment on the release of the ombudsman’s joint resolutions because there is no temporary restraining order or injunction that was issued by the Supreme Court,” she pointed out. – Michael Punongbayan, Christina Mendez, Jose Rodel Clapano, Delon Porcalla, Edu Punay, Paolo Romero, Evelyn Macairan, Janvic Mateo, Rhodina Villanueva, Edith Regalado, Charlie Lagasca