Analysts weigh in on Merci's impeachment

By Caroline J. Howard, ANC

Posted at Mar 09 2011 10:17 PM | Updated as of Mar 10 2011 06:17 AM

New Ombudsman a defining moment for PNoy

MANILA - Political observers believe the House Justice Committee's impeachment proceedings were above board.

Speaking on ANC's "The Rundown," U.P. National College of Public Administration and Governance Professor Prospero de Vera said complaints that the House Justice Committee did not give due process to the Ombudsman are unfair, after the Supreme Court (SC) junked the Ombudsman's appeal to stop the House impeachment hearings.

"The procedures were acceptable. Even if there was a pending decision before the SC, that has been rendered moot and academic by the fact that the SC came out with a decision. Even if that was raised previously, that has no legal consequence now," De Vera said.

De Vera added the committee acted well within the bounds of House rules, adding no questions were raised to the contrary during the House proceedings.

No kangaroo court

Ateneo School of Government Dean Tony La Viña, meantime, brushed off Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez's claim that the committee was a "kangaroo court," saying she never got to test the committee's proceedings.

"It's quite clear there's probable cause for the impeachment," La Viña said in the same interview.

"In my view, if you can't proceed with a good prosecution in 1 or 2 years you should dismiss the case. She should not have sat on them. That's why you have the grounds which is essentially inaction," he added.

"There's no kangaroo court here. The House Justice Committee is not expected to act like a court, it's a political proceeding."

La Viña noted that the committee had gone out of its way to the Ombudsman, but Gutierrez decided not to take that opportunity.

"There will be a different procedure in the Senate. She now has more time to prepare, probably a month, because Congress goes on recess in a couple of weeks, so the trial will probably happen in May," La Viña said.

He added that the Senate now has to play an adjudicatorial role. The Ombudsman has another opportunity to prove that they did not have all the facts to make a final decision on the case, and that there's no basis for the impeachment.

"I'm very confident the Senate will do the right thing here and allow her and House of Representatives to make their case, and make a judgment. But let's be clear, that judgment will also be political. Senators will make a decision on the basis on political belief that the Ombudsman has or hasn't done her case," La Viña explained.

PNoy lobbying

Both De Vera and La Viña added that President Aquino is in a position to tell his allies in Congress to move for the Ombudsman's impeachment in keeping with his government's anti-corruption platform.

They noted that like any other party, the Liberal Party (LP) is expected to take a stand.

"The decision of the President to support it is fundamentally a given fact: he campaigned on a platform of good governance, anti-corruption during the last election," De Vera said.

"It's funny, even ironic, that people were criticizing President Aquino previously for trying to skirt the issue of the Ombudsman by trying to create a Truth Commission. Now that the President has taken a definitive position on impeachment, now there are quarters criticizing him for taking a position," De Vera added.

Interviewed in ANC's "Top Story" on Tuesday, Atty. Salvador Panelo, counsel for Ombudsman Gutierrez, had said it was unfair for the President to lobby or direct LP lawmakers to support the complaint, given the separation of the executive and the legislative.

"It has to be partisan, that's the whole point of impeachment," La Viña added. "The whole point is it has to be the highest political bodies making those positions, reflecting the will of the people. So the President here is reflecting the will of his voters, and the House of Representatives reflects their constituents."

Senate is next battle ground

The House plenary is set to vote on the impeachment complaint next week, which, once approved, will be transmitted to the Senate for trial.

Before making a decision, La Viña said senators will have to bear in mind what do Filipinos think, weigh the evidence, and how are people looking at it.

"I think it would be a disservice to the senators if we start counting those for and against and pressure them into taking a stand. We haven't heard the evidence and we don't know how good the prosecutors will be in proving the guilt of the Ombudsman," De Vera said.

If impeachment efforts against the Ombudsman fail at the House plenary or the Senate, Merceditas Gutierrez will be stepping down in 2012.

De Vera believes congressional investigations into the plea bargain deal and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) fund controversy provided the momentum for the impeachment bid.

"I think this, in a way, is the tipping point on their perception about the Ombudsman, because the fact that the plea bargain agreement was entered into, that it's grossly disadvantageous to public interest, did not do any good, and because the quorum and the way the Ombudsman defended herself in the AFP fund scam really made sure that the impeachment will proceed," De Vera said.

"Without the AFP investigation, things might not be as clear as they are to many people right now," he said.

The next Ombudsman

De Vera and La Viña noted that the choice for the next Ombudsman is critical to the success of the Aquino administration's war on corruption.

"The appointment of the next Ombudsman, assuming the impeachment does complete itself, will be one of the most defining moments of the Aquino presidency. It's a defining moment the Aquino administration must not squander," De Vera said.

"Regardless of what happens to the impeachment, Ombudsman Gutierrez will finish in a year's time. The choice of Ombudsman would be critical to the 'matuwid na daan'," La Viña said

The important reform would be for the Ombudsman to stop being a prosecutor, he added.

"I think the Ombudsman has to be a complaints handler for the people. That's what it's meant to be, to solve problems, and if you find serious corruption of top-level executives, you send that to the Justice Department to independently prosecute, and the rest, it should just be a spokesman, advocate for the people," La Viña said. 

Today, they believe the impeachment proceedings are necessary to the country's political education and the future of its democratic processes.

"The process is important. We need political education for Pinoys, whether it is to understand how their democracy works and trust it, or whether they can get justice from the democratic processes," De Vera said.

"Let's see how this plays out. We need to see how we can use our institutions to resolve differences," La Viña added.