The politics of Senate hearings TMT

The politics of Senate hearings Featured

THE Senate committee on accountability of public officers, or the blue ribbon committee (BRC), has been the bane of scoundrels and corrupt officials in government. Touted as the most powerful congressional committee, the BRC was created to investigate irregularities in the executive branch, its attached agencies, government-owned corporations and parastatals. But over time, in the mold of traditional politics in this country, it is perceived to have evolved simply into a platform for politicians propelling their personal agenda. The chairman is projected as an alpha senator — appearing to be the equal of — or a wannabe president himself.

The BRC can summon any person in the bureaucracy and from the private sector. However, it does not have the power to incarcerate witnesses and lying resource persons except for contempt of the Senate. But the biggest advantage to the chairperson is his debut to a much wider stage and larger national audience — free publicity at no personal expense — investigating scandals, anomalies and whatever disturbs the equanimity of the powers that be — even those in the oligarchy. In short, there is a strong compulsion to turn this into a grandstanding platform impelled by the glare of TV camera lights, the proceedings dictated more by news deadlines and prime time TV slots, bludgeoning the witnesses, leaving some reputations in tatters. A premium post, pro- and anti-administration demagogues vie for television time allowing them to preen and strut before the cameras. All such investigations are being pursued "in aid of legislation."

Antecedents

The BRC's storied past started during President Elpidio Quirino's administration. Sen. Justiniano Montano of Cavite, Quirino's Liberal Party mate but also a rival, formed a clique — "the little Senate" that proved to be a thorn in the side of the president. This precedent, born out of spite, has since become a tool for a senator who wants his head raised above the rest.

More often than not, there is a bizarre rule of thumb in the BRC hearings: the BRC of a new regime investigates the past regime's alleged anomalies if both are on opposite camps; or the current Senate and the president are "kontra-partido"; or an ambitious senator uses the hearings to advance his agenda, irrespective of their party affiliation or alliances.

Among the celebrated BRC investigations were the PEA-Amari scam involving the overpriced purchase of reclaimed land in Manila Bay. Then senator Ernesto Maceda exposed it as the"the grandmother of all scams." The anomalous deal occurred during the incumbency of President FVR and his factotum, Speaker Joe de Venecia. Under FVR's successor, President Erap's BRC cohorts investigated the so-called Expo Filipino scam, for allegedly excessive amounts of money poured into the project. FVR was cleared.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has the greatest number of serious BRC investigations, among them the fertilizer fund scam causing the resignation of her agriculture officials; the NBN-ZTE deal that netted the alleged "bagman" her erstwhile Comelec chairman; and the Hello Garci scandal that involved her allegedly rigging election results in her favor.

President PNoy had the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) scam, and the Janet Napoles fund diversion anomalies, and the deadly Mamasapano massacre.

And President Duterte had the immigration and customs bureaus' bribery and smuggling cases; the Dengvaxia controversy; the PhilHealth corruption scandals; and the biggest during his watch, the Pharmally scandal.

Pharmally anomalies

This case is taken here at length for two reasons: the clear and direct defiance of the Deegong, directing his Cabinet not to cooperate with the BRC investigation, and the involvement of foreign nationals at a time of the greatest worldwide emergency situation — the Covid-19 pandemic.

What was established in those unprecedented 18 hearings were: the Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp (Pharmally), a company with a small paid-up capital of P625,000 and with no track record, managed to corner nine contracts worth P8.68 billion of substandard quality PPE. An attendant anomaly was the illegal transfer of P41.4 billion funds by the Department of Health to the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM). Behind these transactions was the so-called Davao Mafiosi of Christopher Lao, an obscure lawyer, DBM undersecretary and alleged Sen. Bong Go stooge (SBG denied this vehemently) who was transferred to head the PS-DBM (TMT, Sept 8, 2021).

Hovering over Pharmally was Michael Yang. "This shadowy figure, not even a Filipino, was privileged an appointment as President Duterte's 'economic adviser." (TMT, Sept. 15, 2021).

What added drama to these hearings was the adversarial chairman, Dick Gordon. The man was a master at squeezing the last drop of the hearings' PR content at the expense of the Deegong and his subalterns. At the end of the day, nothing happened! The Deegong's Senate cohorts junked the committee report. The miscreants went back to China. And Senator Gordon lost his reelection bid.

BBM'S folly

Weeks into his administration, BBM run smack into the machinations of his trusted lieutenants, Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez and spokesperson Trixie Angeles (TMT, Oct 26, 2022) that triggered a BRC investigation headed by Sen. Francis Tolentino, a political ally and former partymate of Duterte. Apparently "...there has been a noted shortage of supply of sugar in the domestic market of the Philippines after a poor harvest for the 2021–22 crop year. This led to the price increase of the commodity and there were suspicions of traders taking advantage of the situation through hoarding. A plan to import 300,000 MT of sugar through Sugar Order 4 was also subject to controversy which led to the resignation of officials of the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA).

The BRC hearing arrived at the conclusion that the shortage was artificial and manipulated by big-time traders — and hoarders. Short of sacking officials from Malacañang and the Agriculture department, the powerful SRA remained intact, powerful and probably waiting for the next strike.

'Pricey, outdated' laptops

The second BRC hearing conducted by Chairman Tolentino involved the anomalous purchase of computer laptops for teachers. The Commission on Audit (CoA) has flagged the Education department (DepEd) for spending P4.5 billion. What was curious was the involvement of the DBM-PS — the same conduit for anomalous transactions on the Pharmally investigations. The same modus operandi was used under the Republic Act 11494, or the "Bayanihan to Recover as One Act." The DBM-PS struck again with the questionable procurement of the laptops.

What is unconscionable was the subsequent declaration of Tolentino that "...individuals conspired 'to pocket' public funds allotted for the purchase of laptops for public school teachers for online teaching at the height of the pandemic."

But then he promptly terminated the investigation, saying sheepishly, "It's quite complicated. The conspiracy angle is still there." Tolentino is either too lazy to pursue the investigation to its logical conclusion — or something fishier is in the offing. The good senator was the Deegong's man, and these anomalies happened on Duterte's watch.

BBM can pursue these investigations — using the full force of the law after all the grandstanding. He has enough evidence to push through.

But will he?

 

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