Senators clash in plenary over Villar ethics case

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 25 2010 05:08 PM | Updated as of Jan 26 2010 09:51 AM

Senators clash in plenary over Villar ethics case 1MANILA, Philippines (4th UPDATE) - After a week’s delay, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile on Monday finally got to sponsor his report on the trial of Senator Manny Villar for unethical conduct in connection with the C-5 road extension project.

Villar faces censure for violating the Constitution and the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, and for engaging in improper and unethical conduct.

The 84-page report, signed by 12 of 23 senators, recommended that Villar be censured for improper and unethical conduct after he instigated and funded a government road project that benefited his real estate business.

The committee also demanded that Villar return to the government an unspecified amount he gained from his role in the C-5 road extension project.

Enrile said Villar violated the 1987 Constitution for failing to divest himself of controlling shares in real estate firms that earned billions of pesos in taxpayer's money over road right-of-way projects.

According to the report of the Senate Committee of the Whole, Villar should be censured for failing to divulge that his real estate companies would benefit from the Las Piñas-Parañaque link road and the C-5 road extension projects.

The report said the government spent P6.2 billion on the C-5 road extension project, including the realigned P4.28 billion for the extension project, the P1.8 billion spent for the original project but was wasted due to the realignment, and the reportedly overpriced payment of P141.2 million in right-of-way payments for Villar's real estate companies.

Immediately after Enrile’s sponsorship speech, Villar’s allies took to floor to present their own resolution clearing Villar of any wrongdoing.

Twelve senators had signed the resolution when it was filed in November. But Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Francis Pangilinan have since withdrawn their signatures.

Aside from insisting there was no realignment and there was no overprice in the C-5 project, Villar’s allies defended his decision to boycott a partisan proceeding.

Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano also said the committee report runs counter to the testimonies of some of the witnesses.Senators clash in plenary over Villar ethics case 2

He said government witnesses summoned by the Senate had testified that there was no realignment of the government road projects in Parañaque and Las Piñas, and no misappropriation of funds for the same.

'Substantial, credible evidence'

In the report, Enrile said there was "substantial, credible evidence" to show that Villar and his wife, Congresswoman Cynthia Villar, owned 100% of Adelfa Corp, which is the holding company that owns Golden Haven Memorial Park and Azalea Property Corp., now Brittany Corp.. 

He said the two real estate firms earned billions of pesos after the government bought their properties for two road projects namely the Las Piñas-Parañaque link road and the C-5 road extension project.

He said documentary evidence and the testimonies of several witnesses, including former Adelfa senior VP and general manager Anastacio Adriano Jr., showed that properties owned by Villar's real estate companies that were acquired for the road right-of-way projects were overpriced and given zonal valuation for different areas from the areas where they were situated.

"It is fair and safe to assume that Senator Villar knew and ought to have known of the said overpricing as his corporations stood to gain from such transactions from the government and considering the closeness of Sen. Villar to Adriano," Enrile said.

He noted that Villar used his influence as House Speaker to appropriate funds for the Las Piñas-Parañaque link road. He said Villar continued to fund the project when he was already a senator, as chairman of the Senate committee on finance, and when he was Senate president.

Enrile said that instead of benefiting from the road projects, Villar should have donated the land to the government.

He also scored Villar for refusing to appear in 12 Senate adjudicatory hearings to investigate allegations that his real estate companies benefited from government road projects in Parañaque and Las Piñas.

Villar has refused to appear in the Senate Committee of the Whole inquiry, saying that some members of the panel were his opponents in the presidential race.

'No conflict of interest'

In Villar's defense, Cayetano said the senator's real estate firm is just one of the developers who benefited from road right-of-way projects. He cited an 1999 opinion of former Justice Secretary Serafin Cuevas that there is no impropriety when government decides to enter into contract with a real estate firm owned by a member of Congress.

"He [Cuevas] said if the government wants to take over your property, there is no conflict of interest because the government has a project. The government is taking over your property. If Villar's companies had not dealt with government, the properties would have been expropriated. It would be a forced purchase. The difference is that in expropriation, the owner could contest the fair market value of the price. Villar could have earned more through expropriation," he said.

Cayetano also chastised senators for accusing Villar of cowardice when he refused to appear before the Senate Committee of the Whole inquiry.

"It is not true that a person is a coward just because he chooses the venue where he will defend himself. It means he has the qualities of a true president. It means he will not drag down his office because one senator or a couple of senators believe that they will win the election by throwing the C-5 issue and wanting the debate here on the floor," he said.

He also noted a sentence in the Senate Committee of the Whole report assuming Villar's guilt despite no direct evidence linking him to the overpricing of the properties.

"Since when have we had the right to assume? We will say in the report "there is no direct evidence" and then say he is guilty. This report would not have been released if not for politics. We should investigate who signed this report," he said.

Free for all

Senators clash in plenary over Villar ethics case 3But the orderly proceeding that was agreed upon between the anti-Villar and pro-Villar camps turned into a free-for-all as one senator after another who was mentioned in the speeches joined in the fray.

Presidential candidates Sen. Benigno Aquino III and Jamby Madrigal both stood up and defended themselves from controversies purportedly thrown at them by Cayetano.

Cayetano decried that among all presidential contenders, only Villar had been pinned for ethical charges. He said this only proves that the committee report on the realignment of the C-5 road extension was released for political reasons.

Madrigal took offense when Cayetano mentioned the Alabang-Zapote road, which traverses her family's Madrigal Business Park. She decried that Cayetano seemed to be accusing her and her family of having engaged in questionable deals to have the road developed.

Madrigal said that she was still in high school when the road was constructed, which means she could not have ordered any amendment to the national budget just to fund the Alabang-Zapote road. Senators clash in plenary over Villar ethics case 4
 
On the other hand, Aquino took the podium to clear himself of allegations linking him to the Subic Clark Tarlac Expressway (SCTEx) project, which is currently being investigated at the House of Representatives.

The Aquino family is being accused of, among others, receiving road right-of-way compensation after the SCTEX, in an allegedly irregular deal, was constructed to traverse the family's Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac.

Aquino said that Villar's ally in the lower House, Cong. Boying Remulla, has yet to show direct evidence of anomalies and of his (Aquino) involvement in the project.

Copycat Villar

Senators clash in plenary over Villar ethics case 5Meanwhile, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada also stood up to defend his father, former President Joseph Estrada. Estrada was ousted in 2001 due to charges of corruption and was convicted of plunder in 2007.

Estrada has again thrown his lot into the 2010 presidential race. The Commission on Elections recently threw out a disqualification petition against him.

The younger Estrada reminded Cayetano that his father, unlike Villar, faced his impeachment proceedings in 2001.

He then challenged Villar to also show up at the debate in the plenary and to "copy" what Estrada did in 2001.

Sen. Estrada said Villar might as well copy the strategy since the NP standard-bearer has already copied his father's 2010 presidential campaign.

"He has copied our campaign color, our slogan, everything – why couldn’t he do what my father did then and face the Senate?’ he said.

Villar’s 2010 election campaign color is orange, the same as Estrada's 1998 campaign.

Villar's political ads have also projected him as pro-poor, an image which propelled Estrada and his "Erap Para sa Mahirap" campaign to success in the 1998 presidential elections.

Roxas gets angry over sex joke

So passionate were the exchanges that they bordered on the personal.Senators clash in plenary over Villar ethics case 6

Sen. Manuel "Mar" Roxas II and Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel locked horns after the latter cracked a joke about Roxas's statements defending himself against claims that he and his colleagues were "ganging up" on Villar

"My name was mentioned in the context that we are ganging up, that this is all political, that we are using insertions, when he (Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano) said in a blanket statement that we had insertions," Roxas said.

"I say no. I had no insertion on any matter. In fact, I have no insertion, period. Because we're in the minority! Let alone an insertion for a road to pass through any such property," Roxas said.

Pimentel answered: "Well, well, I am sure that after your marriage, you had some insertions."

"But that may be different," he added.Senators clash in plenary over Villar ethics case 7

The comment prompted laughter from those seated in the gallery, but angered Roxas. "That is an affront on my wife (Korina Sanchez), Mr. President!" he said.

Roxas immediately demanded that Pimentel's statement be removed from the official transcript of the Senate session.

'Choo-choo train'

Verbal tussles like these were common during the plenary session as tempers among opposing camps flared.

Enrile and Madrigal continued accusing Villar of unethical conduct, saying there was clear and concrete evidence that Villar violated the law.

Madrigal also accused Villar allies of "railroading" Senate Resolution 1472, signed by Villar and 11 other Senators, that calls for the dismissal of complaints against Villar.

Madrigal also said that Villar was "making a mockery of proceedings by not appearing and letting [a] choo-choo train of lawyers defend him."

Pimentel shot back saying Madrigal should use parliamentary language instead of words like "choo-choo."

Proud of project

Through all of these, Villar remained a no-show. No amount of taunting from his critics that he was a coward could draw Villar out to the session hall.

Senators clash in plenary over Villar ethics case 8He only came to the Senate premises Monday evening after the session.

In a press conference, he reiterated his position that he would not get justice in the proceedings especially since his election rivals were also his critics in the Senate.

He again denied any wrongdoing and even said he remains proud of the C-5 road extension project.

"Tingin ko pulitika lamang iyan, dahil sa eleksyon lamang iyan, Nag-panic noong ako'y dumidikit na, biglang ninerbiyos. nilabas na ulit iyong dalawang taon nang isyu,” said the Nacionalista Party standard bearer.

Meanwhile, even if they eventually get to a vote, senators would have to resolve the debate on how many votes are needed to adopt the committee report: a simple majority of 12, or 16 comprising two-thirds of a chamber. -- reports from Lynda Jumilla, ABS-CBN Newsl; Purple S. Romero, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak; ANC