House panel votes to proceed with Ombudsman impeachment

By RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 22 2011 01:36 PM | Updated as of Feb 22 2011 11:46 PM

Arroyo allies try to delay process

MANILA (2nd UPDATE) - The House of Representatives Committee on Justice has voted 21-5, to proceed with the impeachment proceedings against Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and ordered her to respond in 3 days upon receipt of the letter, to respond to the case against her.

The vote was taken despite dilatory tactics by allies of former President, now Pampanga 2nd District Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

The committee, furthermore, set hearings on March 1, 2, 8 and 9 at 9:30 a.m. to hear the Gutierrez case. The next step now is the determination on the sufficiency of the grounds of the impeachment complaint.

The committee vote came after protracted arguments on whether the committee should wait for the end of the appeals process and finality of the decision.

The committee began with Justice committee chairman Niel Tupas recalling that on September 28, 2010, the committee already voted to proceed even with the issuance of the status quo ante (SQA) order by the Supreme Court.

Then, on Tuesday (Feb. 15), the High Court ruled to proceed, dismissing the petition filed by Gutierrez to nullify the impeachment proceedings. The committee got a copy of the ruling today and will furnish members with copies.

Arroyo allies try to delay

Arroyo allies lost no time trying to delay as charges flew that the House leadership was railroading the proceedings.

Arroyo ally, Davao Rep. Marc Cagas, tried to delay the proceedings, raising a point of order--which he later modified to a point of inquiry--on the matter of the deportation of Taiwanese nationals to China which was on the agenda.

Cagas argued the impeachment was not on the agenda as of last night but came up in a revised agenda today.

“As of last night, this representation as well as other colleagues were informed that in today’s meeting, the topic will cover the Taiwanese. To my surprise this morning, I was given copy of agenda and much to my surprise, part 1 has been included,” Cagas said.

Senior Deputy Majority Leader Janet Garin then asserted that Tupas is not obligated to consult with his committee members on the agenda.

Another Arroyo ally, Zambales Rep. Mitos Magsaysay, then insisted they just defer the impeachment since nothing will be voted upon anyway.

Impeachment deadline

However, Tupas said, “Impeachment proceedings in this hearing is of paramount importance...this takes precedence over legislative matters to ask committee what course to take.”

Oriental Mindoro Rep. Rey Umali then cited the impending lapse of the 60-session-day deadline for the committee to report the case to plenary. He asked the committee when this deadline will lapse.

“That’s a point of inquiry because the importance of the hearing in the agenda is owing to the urgency in light of the matter to complete the mandate within 60 session days, that’s why I'm asking how many,” Umali said.

Tupas said the deadline will lapse probably in the second to third week of March. They have no exact date yet since they have to factor in the budget deliberations last year which altered the legislative calendar.

This in turn prompted Cavite Rep. Elipidio Barzaga to say that the effect of the budget deliberations on the legislative calendar is not important since any suspension of sessions are counted only as one session day even if it lasted 2 weeks.

'Finish appeals process first'

Cagas then reiterated that the committee let the appeals process finish first since Gutierrez still has time to file a motion for reconsideration. "It’s also our duty to make sure no ones rights are trampled," he said.

Tupas then revealed that the committee met with its lawyers, the lawyers of the House, and Speaker Belmonte, as well as other officials of the House yesterday. There, Belmonte reversed himself and was convinced that they need not wait for the end of the appeals process and can now proceed with the case.

“There’s jurisprudence...Since the status quo ante order is ancillary to the main case, and the decision on the main case terminates the status quo ante order,” Tupas said.

Tupas said there is a 2009 case where a preliminary injunction issued by an Iloilo Court was terminated when the main case was decided upon.

Similar advice was also given by the legal teams present.

Tupas also said the recent Supreme Court decision clarified its earlier ruling, saying that the House can entertain several complaints so long as there is only one proceeding---which means several complaints can all be referred at the same time since the time of referral ignites the proceedings.

Deputy Speaker Raul Daza, for his part, said the committee may not even need to give Gutierrez 3 more days to respond.

“I would even support a motion to declare that the period of time has expired and that the committee is now so authorized to proceed which is to determine sufficiency of grounds," Daza said.

Another Arroyo ally to the rescue

Later on, another Arroyo ally, House Deputy Speaker Cebu Rep. Pablo Garcia, also made a pitch to delay the proceedings and wait for the termination of the appeals process as a matter of prudence.

Garcia, formerly of the Lakas-Kampi-CMD, now leads the National Unification Party with other originals of the Arroyo Kampi Party. They have sought to distance themselves from Lakas-CMD.

“Because the dismissal is not yet final and executory, whether there is a motion for reconsideration or not, the Rules of the Supreme Court provide that its decision will not become final and executory until 15 days," Garcia said. "It might be better to file a clarificatory motion before the court."

Barzaga refuted this saying the court’s dismissal clearly also dismisses the SQA.

'Have mercy on Merci'

Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, for his part, said wants Gutierrez to be given another full 10 days to respond.

“Mercy tempers justice. We believe in mercy. Merceditas Gutierrez,” Rodriguez said.

Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas said letting the appeals process roll first may bring them past the deadline, since both sides will be given another 15 days each to respond.

Under the House Rules on Impeachment, Gutierrez has 10 days to respond. However, the SQA was issued last year on the 7th day. Thus, she now only has 3 days left.

'General denial for Gutierrez if no answer'

Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tañada III said Gutierrez even received a letter on November 17, 2010 requiring her to give her answer in 3 session days.

If Gutierrez doesn’t file an answer, a general denial will be entered on her behalf.

In a subsequent ambush interview, Tañada denied that there were attempts to railroad the proceedings. He also denied President Aquino’s hand in Belmonte’s change of heart.

Belmonte last week said the House of Representatives would wait for the end of the appeals process first.

Belmonte confirmed the meeting yesterday. "All our lawyers, including the Solicitor-General, agreed we can proceed. So I gave the go signal."
 
Tañada said no one called them in reaction to reports Aquino called his allies in the House to strategize the impeachment of the Ombudsman.

Impeach SC justices?

Meanwhile, Fariñas has found a possible ground to impeach the high court justices for betrayal of public trust and culpable violation of the Constitution.

Fariñas noted a separate opinion of Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio in the dismissal of Gutierrez' petition.

Carpio said that the SC en banc voted to issue an SQA with the justices not given enough time to read Gutierrez' petition for an injunction.

Gutierrez made her case September 13. The SQA was issued September 14. Requests supposedly by Carpio and fellow justices Conchita Carpio-Morales and Lourdes Sereno to have more time to read the decision were denied.

"It's now apparent the Supreme Court restrained the House of Representatives without reading the petition. This is very alarming. The Supreme Court restrained us on September 14 and 5 months and 1 day after, they tell us we were right. We can no longer allow the Supreme Court to be a superior body dictating to us what to do,” Fariñas said.

'Gutierrez got more'

Daza, for his part, noted that Gutierrez only asked for a temporary restraining order, but got more.

“The TRO would have stopped the committee from proceeding further after the issuance of a letter for the Ombudsman to answer, but the issuance of the SQZ, in effect, moved the committee to the situation before filing and referral to the committee of 2 complaints. For some reason, the Ombudsman got more than what she asked for,"
 he said.

Gutierrez and majority of the High Court justices were appointees of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, supposedly as part of a plan to insulate her from prosecution after stepping down as president.

Gutierrez reacts to ruling

In response to the decision of the House justice committee, Gutierrez reiterated she  has 15 days to file an appeal.

In a statement, she said:

"We have heard from media reports that the Committee on Justice of the House of Representatives has just decided to push through with the impeachment proceedings against the Ombudsman.
 
"If true, the Ombudsman would simply like to state that she has fifteen (15) days from receipt of the SC Decision or until 05 March 2011, within which to file a Motion for Reconsideration of the latest ruling of the Supreme Court.
 
"No less than the Speaker of the House the Honorable Feliciano Belmonte has announced that the House proceedings will be deferred until after a final ruling is rendered on the Ombudsman’s petition. We believe that this is the appropriate approach."