(Part 2 of a special report on the feud between 2 political families of Ilocos Norte.)
Between the Senate's investigation of extrajudicial killings and human rights violations linked to President Rodrigo Duterte and the House's investigation of the illegal drugs trade allegedly under Senator Leila de Lima, to the House's separate investigations on the allegedly anomalous TADECO joint venture agreement in Davao del Norte, to the allegedly anomalous use of tobacco excise taxes in Ilocos Norte, political observers believe that the 17th Congress may very well be a "House of Feuds" than a lawmaking body.
The House of Representatives now finds itself on a collision course with the judiciary over the case of the "Ilocos 6", with House leaders refusing to budge on issuing a show-cause order against appellate court justices whose order to release the 6 was rejected by the House.
The Ilocos 6 are the provincial employees caught in between the political rivalry of Ilocos Norte's provincial political titans, Governor Imee Marcos and 1st district Representative and House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas, who initiated the probe.
House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez earlier publicly called the justices "idiots" and announced intentions to seek their disbarment. The House Committee on Good Government voted to issue a show-cause order, which is expected to be released this week.
After the 6 were detained beginning May 29, a motion for provisional release or release on bail was filed June 6 at the Court of Appeals (CA) by lawyer Estelito Mendoza, legal counsel of the Provincial Government of Ilocos Norte (PGIN) employees.
The legal counsels, led by Mendoza and Atty. Butch Catubay, filed a petition for the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus on June 1, which was granted by the CA the following day. However, House Sergeant-at-Arms Roland Detabali was absent at hearings held June 2 and 5.
The Court, in its orders, warned Detabali that he could be cited in contempt of court, if he again fails to appear and present the Ilocos 6.
The motion for their provisional release also said, "Notwithstanding orders of this Honorable Court, the respondent (Detabali) has not produced before the Court the persons of the petitioners."
"The Contempt Order has been applied to indefinitely detain the detainees since the Members of the House Committee [on Good Government and Public Accountability] are requiring an answer satisfactory to them," it added.
It also said that in cases of direct contempt to which the situation of the employees is similar, the maximum penalty is only 10 days' imprisonment.
The House has refused to honor the court’s release order, saying that detaining the 6 is within the power of the House to investigate in aid of legislation.
Detabali initially argued that cases regarding habeas corpus are not under jurisdiction of the CA, but rather under the Supreme Court (SC). He forwarded the same opposition in response to the employees' petition for provincial release on June 6.
According to Catubay, the employee-petitioners are also considering the filing of criminal charges against House officials who "perpetrated the cruel, oppressive, and coercive interrogation against them in violation of the Anti-Torture Law."
In a statement on June 9, Farinas said, “It's a pending case in court, and we will address the issues properly in court."
This in turn prompted Alvarez to cuss at the justices and threaten them with disbarment "for ignorance of the law.”
On June 20, the committee voted to issue a show-cause order against CA 4th Division Acting Presiding Justice Stephen Cruz and Justices Erwin Sorongon and Nina Antonino-Valenzuela to explain why they should not be held in contempt.
The House leadership’s actions drew an appeal from Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Appellate Court Presiding Justice Andres Reyes.
It also drew the rebuke from legal observers like San Beda Graduate School of Law dean Ranhilo Aquino and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines in Locos.
In a Facebook post, Aquino said, “This is unheard of. It is unprecedented in its hubris as well as in its brazen attempt at emasculating judicial independence. Only the Supreme Court enjoys disciplinary authority over judges of lower courts. If the Lower House believes that the order of the Court of Appeals granting the privilege of the writ was erroneous, then the avenue for review by the Supreme Court is open -- not this ridiculous and truly arrogant measure of issuing a show-cause order against the justices. No judge or justice should ever be summoned by congressmen to explain their judgments. Were this so, judicial independence would be an illusion, and at a time when we have officious individuals who arrogate powers unto themselves that they do not have, and chafe at the slightest threat to their delusions of greatness, judicial independence may very well be the saving grace of the hapless citizen.”
UP Political Science assistant professors Ranjit Rye and Jean Franco said the House leadership's stance put their institutions on a collision course with the judiciary.
Rye said, "Sort of like a mess. The sad part about the investigation is the kind of rhetoric that has come out of it its very divisive it threatens to undermine the separation of powers enshrined in our Constitution. This kind of "gangster"… while the House is well within its powers and functions to undertake oversight and investigate, it must do so mindful of separation of powers and respect for a co-equal branch. This kind of "gangster rhetoric" that's coming out of the House is unnecessary it just creates more noise than it clarifies."
"While there's no unanimity in terms of perspective as far as issues are concerned, there should be a solidarity on the respect for the rule of law, respect for co equal branches," he added. Congress can disagree, can appeal, but there's a manner of doing so."
Not even the personal appearance of former first lady, Ilocos Norte 2nd district Rep. Imelda Marcos could change the minds of her colleagues in the committee’s June 20 hearing. Marcos wrote the committee to ask that the 6 be released to her on recognizance.
Right against self-incrimination
House Committee on Good Government Chairman Johnny Pimentel, however, said that the 6 employees would only be released once they are ready to give truthful answers to questions. But the 6 refused to comply, invoking their right against self-incrimination and requesting that they be represented by a counsel of their choice.
House Majority Leader Rodolfo Farinas asserted that the 6 will remain detained despite the CA order unless they comply. Oriental Mindoro 2nd district Rep. Rey Umali said the CA has no jurisidiction over the House.
Alvarez is also unmoved. In a statement on June 22, he said, "While I appreciate the view of Chief Justice Sereno and Presiding Justice Reyes, it may also be best if they can discipline the said members of the Appeals Court for grave abuse of discretion and abuse of authority. Accordingly, it also has the power to rectify the 'uneasy situation' its recklessness has created.”
Alvarez added,“Let it be clear that the House of Representatives is simply doing its job based on jurisprudence and existing law. For the record, it is the Special Fourth Division of the Court of Appeals that violated the existing law and established jurisprudence.it has become necessary for the House committee to issue the show cause order against the justices of the CA Special Fourth Division. Such is a consequence of the court’s order that overstepped its authority and transgressed the committee’s contempt powers, which is a necessary extension of its legislative power affirmed by no less than the Supreme Court in numerous cases.”
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines responded with a 2-page statement on Sunday, June 25. "If the House of Representatives is of the position that the grant of bail by the Court of Appeals was done in grave abuse of discretion, the remedy to question the order in a petition for certiorari under Rule 65 that may be filed with the Supreme Court. It is on this note that the Board of Governors of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines calls upon the members of the bar in Congress to act as light bringers and advocates of sobriety to bring about an end to this looming controversy. Let the Rule of Law prevail through the exercise and application of the remedies provided under the law and the Rules of Court,” it said.
The House committee, meanwhile, has voted to issue a subpoena to Ilocos Norte Gov. Imee Marcos to appear and explain the transactions to Congress on July 25.
Franco said the House's posturing has been "risque". "The lower House is a bit more its not playing safe because it's really unabashedly pro-Digong but the way that the Speaker has handled the House is a break from the past because he's very vocal. He seems to mimic the president. The problem is he doesn't enjoy the full support of a lot of people."
The Senate on the other hand, for Franco, appears to be a shadow of its old self under the current leadership. "I don't think its strong enough. I think the way I saw it for the past year."
He believes local electoral politics has reached national institutions like the House of Representatives.
Franco said, "I think basically they were also distracted by the serious of investigations that they have launched to the public especially because they have been covered by the media then.Iit may seem to the public that that's the only thing they did and their product after a year."
Rye echoed Franco's observations. "Definitely, it takes a toll on the focus of the House. The House has been distracted from doing significant legislative work. I'm hoping they can go back on track and stay focused in the next congressional year. This year has been spent unnecessarily on investigations (than) in the creation of new and more substantive legislation."
Only 4 laws in a year
In its first year in office, the 17th Congress only managed to pass 4 law: Republic Act 10923 or the posponement of the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections, Republic Act 10924 or the national budget for 2017, Republic Act 10925 or the franchise renewal for GMA Network Inc. and Republic Act 10926 or the franchise Renewal of Smart Communications.
The bicameral reports of 6 other proposals have been ratified and are en route to being signed into law by President Duterte.
Meanwhile, the House and the Senate have had vastly different legislative agenda.
The House has approved on 3rd reading 194 measures from the 6,908 bills and resolutions filed before the Lower House.
When it adjourned sine die last May 31, the House approved on 3rd reading the following: the tax reform package of the present administration, the reimposition of the death penalty, authorizing the penalty of community service for crimes with penalty of aresto menor, the exclusion of those convicted for criminal offenses against a minor from the indeterminate sentence law, stiffer penalties for the crime of delivering prisoners from jail and infidelity in the custody of prisoners, mandating that government pay capital gains tax and documentary stamp tax in addition to just compensation for real property in the exercise of the state's power of eminent domain, the creation of a crime prevention committee for the security of the academic community in higher educational institutions and techno vocational institutions, the rationalization of the powers of the SSS, amnesty for estate tax, the simplification of the rates for estate and donor's taxes, and several franchise and congressional district redistricting bills.
Alvarez, however, is proud of what his chamber accomplished. In his sine die adjournment speech, he said "we can proudly say to the Filipino people that the laws we passed will address these problems they face every day."
On the other hand, Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III said the Senate was guided "by the 11-point agenda we agreed upon to form the majority," as well as "the general expression of support for President Duterte’s agenda for change."
On the Senate's list of Achievements by the end of the first regular session: Teaching Supplies Allowance Act of 2017 (SBN 812), Agricultural Free Patent Reform Act of 2017 (SBN 1454), Sagip Saka Bill (SBN 1281), and “Tulong-Trabaho” Bill (SBN 1431). Pimentel said that since the 17th Congress began last July 25, 2016, senators had filed 1,499 bills which are now in various stages of legislation.
Pimentel also said that the Senate had passed 33 more bills on third and final reading. A number of these bills focused on improving and expanding government services to various sectors.
Franco said that with the administration enjoying supermajorities in both Houses, Congress could have fast-tracked laws that can deliver the president's campaign promises.
"The mere fact they just passed 4 laws is a bit unfortunate mainly because a lot, there are a lot of promises of the president that (have) to be fast-tracked in terms of legislation."
But for Franco, it all boils down to politics, and all politics, is local.
"Of course that's one way of showing their support for the president, meaning that they would rather investigate what people would treat as a parochial matters but on the one hand they also want to sort of make compromises with the members inside the chamber because if you don't give attention to the demands of other members of the House, the speakership may be in trouble."
The House, led by Alvarez, also opened a probe on an allegedly anomalous joint venture agreement between the TADECO of Davao del Norte 2nd district Rep. Tonyboy Floirendo, and the Bureau of Corrections that allowed Floirendo’s family-owned corporation TADECO to turn about 5,000 hectares of the Davao Penal Colony into a banana plantation, which is now the crown jewel of the family’s business empire.
Floirendo represents Davao del Norte's 2nd district. He was also President Duterte's top campaign contributor. Alvarez, meanwhile, represents Davao del Norte's 1st district.
Franco believes that the whole Alvarez-Floirendo fight is complex.
For Rye, meanwhile, it's no coincidence that Alvarez and Farinas have enabled each other, maybe even played proxy for each other in these investigations.
Through it all, Duterte has kept quiet on the feuds between his allies. Alvarez has been an effective rear guard defense leader against efforts to impeach Duterte.
Along with Fariñas, Alvarez has also shepherded the President’s legislative agenda in the 292-member House which has a small but noisy opposition.
Duterte, meanwhile, earlier publicly disclosed that Marcos was also a campaign contributor.
For Franco, the feuds between Duterte's allies threaten the President support base and legislative agenda.
"Local politics also come into play, which is very, very important for legislators in the lower House who are elected district-wide. Unang-una I think the President should also pay attention, full attention to his legislative agenda. His advisers, in my opinion, should also really brief the President," he said. "Sayang iyung supermajority and he came on the presidency with very high expectations. Most of these promises can just be realized through legislation."
But Rye said having the President walk into the local catfights between his allies could come with a heavy price. "Exactly what he's doing now, he's staying out of the fray because it hasn't evolved into a crisis for him. It hasn't become an issue for him (to) involve himself."
He added, "there's always that risk off isolating one political ally."
"Fariñas is an important member of that coalition. I'm sure he's sent emissaries to negotiate or fix this mess. I don't think he will outwardly go out of his way to resolve this. After all, this is an investigation, a legitimate investigation."
Rye said Duterte stayed out of the Alvarez-Floirendo fight and it's very likely Duterte will stay out of the Fariñas-Marcos battle as well.