Palace open to probing graft 'all the way to Aguinaldo'

By David Dizon,

Posted at Dec 09 2010 01:26 PM | Updated as of Dec 10 2010 02:36 AM

MANILA, Philippines - A Palace official said on Thursday the Office of the President is open to a proposal to revise Executive Order No. 1 creating the Truth Commission instead of filing a motion for reconsideration.

In an interview with dzMM, Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Eduardo de Mesa said a reading of the Supreme Court decision on EO 1 shows that it supports the President's power to create a truth commission.

"The only complaint is why the investigation is limited to the past administration. If that is the only thing wrong, one suggestion is we can just expand it and include all past administrations all the way to General Emilio Aguinaldo," he said.

De Mesa said the truth body is limited to investigate only anomalies under the Arroyo administration "because there might be so much to investigate that they will be unable to finish their task in 2 years."

He said former Chief Justice Hilario Davide, who is the chairman of the Truth Commission, helped in the original draft of EO 1 before it was finalized.

De Mesa said filing a motion for reconsideration before the Supreme Court would take time, which would further delay the work of the Truth Commission.

He also noted that leaving the investigation to the Office of the Ombudsman would also lead to delays. The current Ombudsman, Merceditas Gutierrez, is also an Arroyo appointee and an Ateneo law school classmate of former First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo.

"Everybody knows that a lot of cases in the Ombudsman have not moved. Some have been there for 5 years and when it is brought to trial, the Sandiganbayan just dismisses it because it took too long to reach court," he said.

He said the Palace legal team will decide on its next move by Friday.

Legal setbacks

The SC decision on EO 1 is the latest in a string of judicial setbacks for the Aquino administration.

In September, the high court halted the impeachment proceedings against Ombudsman Gutierrez. The proceedings were heavily backed by Aquino allies.

In October, the high court issued issued a status quo order in connection with the motion of Bai Omera Dianalan-Lucman, 1 of 4 who filed a petition questioning the constitutionality of Executive Order No. 2. The order revoked the so-called midnight appointments done by the previous administration.

On Wednesday, President Aquino defended the creation of the Truth Commission and said the body is not solely focused on going after a single person.

“Lilinawin ko po: Hindi nakatutok ang Truth Commission sa iisang tao lamang, kundi sa maraming iba’t ibang mga insidente. Kailangan po nating malaman—hiwa-hiwalay bang kaso ito, o ito ang sistemang umiral sa loob ng siyam at kalahating taon? May mga kakuntsaba pa bang nasa puwesto ngayon, at may pagkakataon pang ipagpatuloy ang kanilang pamiminsala?” he said.

All is not lost: SC

Meanwhile, contrary to accusations by some government officials, a Supreme Court spokesperson said the court sympathizes with President Aquino's commitment to root out and eradicate graft and corruption in government as long as it does not violate the Constitution.

In an interview with radio dzMM also on Thursday, acting SC public information office chief Gleo Guerra said the high court actually agreed that the President has the power to create a Truth Commission, but disagreed with the manner of the truth body's creation and the scope of its investigation.

"If you read all the opinions, you can see the sympathy of the Court to the objective of [President Aquino] to eradicate graft and corruption. However, they emphasized that it must be done in accordance with the law and the Constitution. Under our system of government, the responsibility of determining the constitutionality of the acts of the President, Senate or House of Representatives or any other government agency  falls within the power of the  Supreme Court. Hindi nangingibabaw ang Korte Suprema. Kung ina-annull nila o void ang acts ng ibang agencies, it is just exercising its right," Guerra said.

Why GMA gov't only?

The high tribunal voted 10-5 to declare as unconstitutional Executive Order No. 1 creating the Truth Commission because, among others, it violates the Constitution's provision on equal protection of the law

Specifically, it questioned why the Truth Commission would only investigate anomalies from 2001 to 2010 or during the 9-year term of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

"EO 1 focuses on big cases of graft and corruption without specifying these, it only targeted the administration of President Arroyo. There must  be a specific distinction why it is being investigated," Guerra said.

The spokesperson said the Supreme Court's decision on EO 1 was very nuanced and should not be seen as a defense of the previous administration.

Guerra said EO 1 cited the powers of the President to reorganize government offices under the executive branch.

Power of Congress

However, some of the justices in the majority, including Chief Justice Renato Corona, pointed out that EO 1 is not a reorganization but a creation of a new office, which can only be done through an act of Congress.

Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro also noted that the Truth Commission would not be under the executive branch since it is considered an independent, collegial body.

To make the executive order constitutional, Guerra said the ponencia actually states that the executive issuance be revised to include the earlier administrations.

Asked if including the necessary revisions would get the SC's nod on EO 1, Guerra said: "If they take into account what was said in the court and draft the appropriate revision, there is no reason (why it would not be declared constitutional)."

Par for the course

She said drafting a new EO would not prevent anyone from also questioning it before the Supreme Court.

The spokesperson said the High Court does not expect everyone to agree with its opinions especially after several quarters termed it an "Arroyo court." Of the 15 magistrates, only Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno was appointed by President Aquino while the rest.

"In litigation, some don't get what they want. It's par for the course," she said.

She added that the Aquino government could still achieve its goal of eradicating graft and corruption without violating the Constitution.

"The process is as important as the objective. Otherwise we will no longer be a government of laws," she said.