Public, govt stand to lose if Cabinet members barred from Senate inquiries: Lacson

Gillan Ropero, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 15 2021 12:15 PM | Updated as of Sep 15 2021 02:11 PM

 President Rodrigo Duterte and Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson. King Rodriguez, Presidential Photo / Joseph, Vidal, Senate PRIB
President Rodrigo Duterte and Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson. King Rodriguez, Presidential Photo / Joseph, Vidal, Senate PRIB

MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte has legal basis to prohibit members of his Cabinet from attending Senate inquiries but the public will suffer, Senator Panfilo Lacson said Wednesday.

Lacson made the remark after Duterte instructed officials to get his go-signal before attending Senate hearings on government's alleged anomalous pandemic transactions.

"Ang matatalo, taumbayan, 'di naman Senado, kasi 'di naman kami nag-iimbento, eh," Lacson told ABS-CBN's TeleRadyo.

(The public will stand to lose, not the Senate, because we're not inventing facts.)

"Hirap na hirap mga kababayan natin... Pagkatapos, makikita nila 'yung pera, pinababayaan na lang."

(The people are facing hardships... Then they see government not giving value to public funds.)

The Duterte administration will also lose in the court of public opinion, said the senator who has declared his plan to run for President next year.

"Dahil nandito tayo sa punto na marami nang nakalap na impormasyon, documentary evidence, at saka testimonies, 'pag ngayon sila, aatras, medyo talo sila dito," Lacson said.

(Because we've reached the point where we've gathered many information, documentary evdience, and testimonies, if they retreat, they will lose.)

Lacson said there is a provision in the Constitution that states Cabinet members need the permission of the chief executive to attend hearings but it was "used sparingly."

He is referring to Section 22, Article VI of the 1987 Constitution, that partly states, "The heads of departments may upon their own initiative, with the consent of the President, or upon the request of either House, as the rules of each House shall provide, appear before and be heard by such House on any matter pertaining to their departments."

Lacson also cited former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's Executive Order 464 following the "Hello, Garci" scandal in 2004.

"Ang common denominator, gagawin mo lang yun 'pag (may) tinatago ka o 'pag may ayaw kang ilabas," he said.

(The common denominator is you will only do this because you're hiding something or there's something you don't want to be made public.)

Watch more on iWantTFC

EO 464

In 2005, Arroyo issued EO 464 that required all heads of departments of the Executive Branch to secure the consent of the President prior to appearing before any congressional probe.

This order "was only partially invalidated by the High Court," said Duterte chief legal counsel Salvador Panelo. 

"The Congressional power of inquiry is expressly recognized and granted in the Constitution. It is, as jurisprudence has stated, inherent in the power to legislate," he acknowledged in a statement.

"The Supreme Court, however, also takes judicial cognizance of the fact that the right of Congress to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation is susceptible to abuse. For one, the inquiry itself might not properly be in aid of legislation and just be a veiled usurpation of judicial functions — similar to what is happening now," said Panelo.

Under the constitution, "question hour" is different from inquiries in aid of legislation. The former does not empower the Senate to compel the attendance of department heads, he said. 

"What the Senate is performing now is, at most, its authority... on question hour as we note that no new legislation is being contemplated by its members," he argued. "Hence, it may not compel department heads to attend its hearings nor cite them in contempt if they refuse to participate." 

He said Senate hearings "must be done in such a way that it is free from bias and prejudice" and "must also be conducted in an efficient manner" to avoid preventing agencies from performing their mandate. 

"In sum, it behooves Congress to keep itself in check in its ostensible conduct of official business, lest it transgress the limits prescribed by the Constitution," he said. 

The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee is investigating the government's contracts worth P8.68 billion with Pharmally Pharmaceuticals, a company with a starting paid-up capital of less than P625,000.

Sen. Richard Gordon, chairman of the committee, said the probe stemmed from dialogues with health workers who complained they have not received their benefits despite being in the frontlines in the country's battle against COVID-19.

Gordon said government funds supposedly wasted on anomalous transactions could have been allotted to health workers' benefits.

"Lately, there have been serious efforts to try and divert attention for us to stop with this investigation. Yet, this Committee remains steadfast and will continue to be committed in our obligation to uncover the truth in our COVID response so that we can correct what needs to be corrected and stop this malady of corruption from ruining our chances of winning this fight of and for our lives," the senator said on his social media account.

"Kung ang bilyon-bilyong pondo na nasasayang sa katiwalian sa ating procurement ng mga face masks, PPE at iba pang gamit laban sa COVID ay nagamit para mabigyan ang ating mga nurses, doctors at iba pang health workers ng kanilang mga benepisyo, siguro, hindi na nila kailangang mag-resign," Gordon said during the committee's hearing last Monday.