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Miriam loses World Bank investigation

MANILA, Philippines - Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago was stripped yesterday by her colleagues of the lead role in the investigation of the World Bank’s report of anomalies – with witnesses implicating First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo – in the awarding of government road contracts.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile told reporters that the committee on economic affairs chaired by Santiago may continue with its hearing but only on the economic aspect of the issue. Other senators, Enrile said, may file a resolution giving another committee, possibly the Blue Ribbon, the task of investigating the case’s criminal aspect.

Enrile declined to say whether the decision was a result of criticisms of the way Santiago presided over the two hearings on the issue.

Some senators, particularly Sen. Panfilo Lacson, said the hearings appeared staged and intended to clear Mr. Arroyo of any liability.

Enrile said there was no motion to have Santiago removed from the investigation, although Lacson had openly announced his desire for the Blue Ribbon to step in.

Lacson has criticized Santiago’s strict application of the Rules of Evidence during the hearings and even noted that the hearing last Feb. 12 appeared orchestrated.

Lacson said Santiago should not have terminated the hearing after only two or three hours. “But all’s well that ends well,” Lacson said of the change, which was decided in a caucus.

Santiago said she was not bothered by the development, which she even called a “win-win” solution. She also said her committee would no longer subpoena World Bank country representative Bert Hofman.

“If this is the case, my committee will be happy to limit itself to economic affairs, because, after all, that is the eponymous name of my committee. The committee is named economic affairs,” Santiago said. “After that, if there is a senator who wishes to pursue the criminal angle or the accountability of a public official or a public figure, then that senator should file a resolution and the Senate President will assign it to the proper committee, perhaps to the Blue Ribbon committee,” she said.

“In the meantime, the economic affairs committee and the two secondary committees will first finish this particular investigation on the economic angle of the World Bank case,” Santiago pointed out.

She also said she is ready to meet with Hofman in an “informal setting.”

“Since he has requested for an informal setting, we presume that he means not the formal setting of a public hearing. Perhaps, he prefers an informal conference where he would explain to us the nature of the World Bank documents,” Santiago said.

She also said the Senate agreed to set conditions for the use of the Rules of Evidence, and that the senators would apply the Senate Rules of Procedure, particularly the Rules Governing Inquiries in Aid of Legislation, which stated that as much as possible, “technicalities shall be waived, except when substantive rights of an accused person are involved.”

“The substantive rights of an accused person are those enumerated in our Constitution. The Senate will strictly follow the Rules of Evidence with respect to the substantive rights of an accused – for example, the presumption of innocence of an accused person, his right against self-incrimination, and his right to confront the witnesses against him,” Santiago said.

Santiago said it was she who suggested that her committee be allowed first to finish its investigation of the economic aspect of the World Bank allegation.

Santiago said she also hopes to benefit health-wise from the changes.

“I have, as one of the symptoms of my chronic fatigue syndrome, arrhythmia, which is irregular heartbeat, that and I am palpitating right now. That is why I am breathing like I just ran up several flights of stairs,” she said.

“Actually, I did not even want to hold committee hearings. But since the matter of the World Bank fell on my lap as chair of the proper committee, I did not want to be absent because that would have triggered a string of media stories and speculation about why I was absent and that I was just trying to avoid the controversy,” she said.

“That is why I am very happy about the result of the caucus,” she added.

Blue Ribbon ready

Sen. Richard Gordon, chairman of the Blue Ribbon committee, said his committee is ready to take over the probe from Santiago’s committee.

“It is not for us to investigate the World Bank but the allegation of collusion. The Blue Ribbon committee will investigate the allegation to aid the Senate in drafting laws that would strengthen the country’s campaign against corruption,” Gordon said.

Malacañang said it welcomes a World Bank offer to brief officials on its findings regarding the alleged road bidding anomalies.

“Anything that will contribute to clarifying the issue would be a positive development, and what are the issues everyone is looking at? It is the issue of the names of those who have been involved,” Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said.

“Again, there have been so many insinuations about certain names, it’s one thing to name people, and it’s another to support it with facts and evidence,” he said.

“It’s not enough that you get a piece of paper from anywhere, and get some names and say ‘yeah these people are probably involved,’” he said.

Mr. Arroyo said the allegations against him are hearsay and that nobody has come forward to submit evidence or substantiate the claims against him.

Ermita also welcomed reports that the World Bank has allowed Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and Finance Secretary Margarito Teves to share information contained in the findings.


United Opposition president and Makati City Mayor Jejomar Binay said the Senate may have “lost its independence,” judging from way it conducted the hearing on the World Bank allegation.

“You cannot fault some sectors and the people if they begin to see the Senate as having lost its independence,” Binay said.

He said that at the Senate’s last hearing on the issue, some senators appeared to have “ganged up” on the World Bank and showed restraint in dealing with accusations against the First Gentleman.

“They were quick to clear Mr. Arroyo, even quicker to indict the World Bank,” he said.

Binay said the people showed their dismay at the Senate at a meeting among local opposition leaders and representatives of civil society groups.

“They are disappointed with the Senate. The upper chamber has traditionally been an independent institution. And when the people voted for the candidates of the opposition in 2007, they were voting for a Senate that would continue the tradition of independence,” he said.

Binay noted that under the Arroyo administration, the judiciary and the Senate have managed to stall attempts to suppress democratic rights.

The Senate, he said, has also “cast sunlight on the many large-scale irregularities” involving the Arroyo couple and their political allies.

“When the Senate surrenders its independence, it will only be the judiciary that stands in the way of Mrs. Arroyo’s plans. But even the independence of the Supreme Court will be tested this year, when Mrs. Arroyo appoints seven new justices,” he said.

Change in procurement law pushed

Sen. Francis Escudero, meanwhile, is pushing for amendments to the Government Procurement Reform Act to make the bidding procedure for big-ticket infrastructure projects more resistant to manipulation.

Escudero said that under the existing law, the president could exempt the procurement of certain infrastructure projects, goods and services from the government procurement law “in deference to the contracting law or a loan or credit” deal with a foreign lending institution.

“We need to remove the blanket authority given the president over foreign loans and credits with a lending institution,” he said.

In an interview, the senator also maintained that the law should be amended so that foreign agencies would not be able to dictate who should supply or implement the projects.

“We should be the one dictating since we will be paying for that. The law must be amended to clarify that the Government Procurement Act will apply even to bilateral agreements and executive agreements entered into by our country with another foreign government,” he added. – With Paolo Romero, Mike Frialde, Sheila Crisostomo - By Aurea Calica (Philstar News Service, www.philstar.com)

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