Past ethics probes mere slap-on-the-wrist

By Purple Romero, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak

Posted at May 27 2009 12:48 AM | Updated as of May 28 2009 04:48 AM

If past ethics committee investigations against senators are clues to the outcome of the probe on Senator Manuel Villar, then the former real estate businessman could just be slapped on the wrist.

But if the majority senators, currently acting as a committee of the whole for the ongoing ethics probe, wield its power to “punish [Villar] for disorderly behavior,” then it is likely that such outcome will be considered an attempt to allegedly paralyze Villar’s presidential bid.

Senator Joker Arroyo said Villar’s case is coated with political gimmickry since this is the first time that the Senate seemed keen to penalize one of its members.

Villar, touted as a leading contender to the presidential post because of his high approval ratings, is embroiled in an ethics case after he ordered the double insertion of P200 million in the 2008 budget for the extension of the C-5 road. The founder of real estate companies, which has residential projects that benefited from the road extension, had insisted that the insertion was made for two different road projects.

A look at the past complaints handled by the ethics committee showed that serious sanctions have yet to come out from such investigations.

Former senators Renato Cayetano, Luisa Estrada, Heherson Alvarez, and Juan Flavier had previously faced an ethics probe. The most they received were a slap on the wrist.

Hearsay

In December 2001, Sen. Renato Cayetano resigned as a member of the ethics committee after an inquiry over his alleged involvement in the trading and manipulation of BW Resource Corp. stocks.

BW Resources is owned by Dante Tan, a close friend of former president Joseph Estrada. During the impeachment trial against the beleaguered president, former finance secretary Edgar Espiritu testified that Estrada profited P800 million from the sale of his BW shares.

The Senate committee on banks, financial institutions and currencies, which Cayetano is a member of, probed the gambling company from December 1999 to January 2000 for allegedly violating the rules on full disclosure.

Atty. Jesus Remulla and Ronald Lumbao, spokesperson of the People’s Movement Against Poverty filed a case against Cayetano for failing to disclose his interest in the controversial listed company while the committee was investigating the firm’s deals.

They also aimed to know if the senator’s acquisition of stocks in BW resources is a regular transaction.

Cayetano purchased P3 million BW shares in April 1999, and later sold one million back to Tan for P7.9 million. He also sold the rest of his shares through one of his brokers, A.T. de Castro.

In December 2001, majority of the ethics committee, chaired by Sen. Francis Pangilinan, dismissed the complaint on the following grounds:

• Remulla’s allegations were considered hearsay. Remulla claimed that he got the information regarding Cayetano’s BW shares from Tan himself, but the businessman was unable to confirm this after he failed to show up in the probe.

• The Philippine Stock Exchange does not have implementing rules and regulations for over-the-counter transactions and could not therefore strike them out as illegal.

• There was no conflict of interest because the subject of the investigation of the Senate committee on banks, financial institutions and currencies is the alleged insider trading of BW shares and not Cayetano’s legislation.

“Thus, Sen. Cayetano was not legally obliged to notify the Committee of the potential conflict of interest,” the ethics committee stated in its report.

They added that Cayetano only appeared in one hearing on the case of BW Resources.

The dismissal of the complaint against Cayetano was not a unanimous decision, however. Four of the nine members of the ethics committee–senators Aquilino Pimentel, Robert Jaworski, Blas Ople and Vicente Sotto III–did not sign the report.

Lack of authority

The Pangilinan-led ethics committee also dismissed a complaint against Sen. Luisa Estrada, the legal wife of former president Estrada, for lack of jurisdiction.

Estrada allegedly asked the complainant, Leonides Cortes, for a payment of P200,000 in exchange for an endorsement for her invention. Cortes made the Edes Perpetual Trash Depot, which the lady senator purportedly sought for as a “solution” to the garbage problem in Payatas.

The Payatas dumpsite became a literal burying ground for around 300 people who died when a mountain of garbage caved in.

The ethics committee did not pursue the case, however, because the complaint was made against Estrada’s actions as a First Lady, and not as a senator.

Admonished

The harshest punishment that a senator received for an ethical violation is a reprimand.

Sen. Heherson Alvarez, head of the blue ribbon committee in 1996, was recommended for admonition by the ethics committee after he vouched for the innocence of an implicated party while an investigation still ongoing.

Alvarez wrote Gen. Recardo Sarmiento, chief of the Philippine National Police, that his subordinate Chief Supt. Virgilio Odulio is considered off-the-hook in the probe on a pyramid scam.

Odulio was charged by his secretary, Gloria Victoria Garabatom, of starting the multimillion pyramid scam in the PNP. The blue ribbon committee launched a probe on the matter.

In a letter dated February 6, 1996, however, with the investigation still to be terminated, Alvarez wrote Sarmiento that “the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee has not made any finding linking Odulio to the alleged PNP scam” and that that they “found no basis for his alleged involvement, knowledge nor participation in the anomalous transactions.”

Atty. Lupino Lazaro, Garabato’s counsel, filed an ethics complaint against Alvarez. Odulio’s wife, however, defended the senator and said that she requested the letter to clarify her husband’s status.

Alvarez said he wrote the letter in his personal capacity and not as an official statement of the blue ribbon committee.

Garabato also said that Alvarez threatened to sue her for perjury after she implicated Odulio. Alvarez allegedly made the threat when he visited her at the St. Luke Medical Center in Quezon City where she was confined.

The ethics committee, chaired by Sen. Juan Flavier, ruled that Alvarez should be admonished for placing the Senate’s objectivity under doubt. However, they said that Alvarez’s actions were “mitigated” by the committee’s recommendation of Odulio for prosecution by the Ombudsman.

Flavier failed to pin down Alvarez on Garabato’s second charge because of lack of evidence.

“Sorry” is enough

Flavier had also become the subject of an ethics complaint. His case showed that grievances are not always entangled in money issues or allegations of conflict of interest.

In August 2002, Flavier averted a full-blown probe by the committee when he apologized for making “insensitive remarks” to the Davao Compostela Valley School Teachers Association Inc. (DACOMPSTA).

DACOMPSTA filed an ethics complaint against the lawmaker after he told them in when they dropped by the senator’s office on August 20, 2001 to just “go to Noli de Castro whom [the teachers] voted for.”

DACOMPSTA said that Flavier blamed them for his poor showing in the Compostela Valley during his re-election bid for the Senate in 2001.

Flavier extended his apology to DACOMPSTA through a handwritten letter in April 2002 and reiterated his regrets in a letter to Compostela Valley Rep. Manuel Zamora.

In its report in August 2002, the ethics committee said that “the apology extended by Sen. Flavier to DACOMPSTA should suffice to put an end to this simple case of misunderstanding.” It dismissed the complaint.