Not a day goes by, it seems, without a congressional investigation going on in one or both the chambers of Congress. With the campaign for the midterm polls approaching, the live media coverage is priceless for those eyeing reelection.
The probes fill the vacuum created by the hopelessly weak criminal justice system, which moves slower than frozen molasses. The congressional probes, even if they are mostly circuses, are the closest we can get to swift justice.
We see a parade of the prominent, influential and notorious – or at least their lawyers – being tormented by rude lawmakers and practically pronounced guilty on national TV. Some “resource persons” even end up in detention for observing omerta and refusing to cooperate.
The probes usually come up with recommendations for criminal indictments, which unfortunately rarely lead to convictions. But even before formal charges are filed, many of us have already formed our own conclusions; the court of public opinion hands down its verdict even before congressional inquiries are over.
The probes aren’t kind to lawmakers who clearly haven’t done their homework and simply want to preen for the cameras. Live coverage can magnify flaws, exposing to the nation the clowns and lightweights who don’t deserve the people’s vote.
One positive impact that people hope to see is that the congressional inquiries, which sometimes seem like inquisitions, will serve as deterrents to wrongdoing in public office.
After all the probes since the aborted presidency of Joseph Estrada, by now people should realize that today’s power players are likely to face congressional inquiries and criminal indictments in the next administration. As Erap famously said, “weather-weather lang ’yan.”
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These days it’s the turn of the daang matuwid team to face congressional probes in both chambers and deal with criminal indictments for corruption and even homicide.
Taking a page from Noynoy Aquino’s book, President Duterte’s congressional super majority is set to impeach another chief justice. Maria Lourdes Sereno’s impeachment is a foregone conclusion. And with the House now raising questions about her official asset statements, she might not even be able to count on support from the Senate. Since this is the same issue that doomed her predecessor Renato Corona, the asset question can be considered heavy artillery against Sereno.
Even now there is already a strong buzz in legal circles about her possible replacement: Lucas Bersamin, appointed to the Supreme Court in April 2009 by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Bersamin, who is 68 and just a few days older than Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, is reported to have a soft spot for the guy considered in legal circles as the SC’s eminence grise, lawyer Estelito Mendoza.
Carpio probably already knows he’s not in the running again for chief justice, or he wouldn’t be issuing public statements about the perils of a government’s failure to protect national sovereignty in disputed waters.
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Erap, Arroyo, and now Noynoy Aquino. President Duterte surely knows he will also face investigation on various charges.
The International Criminal Court isn’t even waiting for the end of his term. Malacañang disclosed yesterday that it has been formally notified by the ICC about the start of a “preliminary examination” of charges that Duterte and his minions committed crimes against humanity in waging the war on drugs.
Apart from this case, there’s talk of certain quarters now studying whether Duterte can be held liable, once he’s no longer in power, for treason. This is for failing to assert Philippine sovereignty – as officially proclaimed by the United Nations-backed Permanent Arbitration Court – over several reefs and a marine bank in the South China Sea.
Treason is normally related to wartime offenses, for traitorous assistance to the enemy. China, however, is not an enemy. Still, the legal sleuths, according to the grapevine, are now looking into possible offenses related to defense of the nation’s territorial integrity. This could lead to an impeachment complaint for culpable violation of the constitutional provision on national economy and patrimony, which declares: “The State shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea, and exclusive economic zone, and reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens.”
Now his critics say Duterte has even given away to China the Philippine Rise and other areas in the Philippine Basin, or at least the naming rights over strategic spots in that sea. We might yet see several submarine mountains and ridges in that part of the Western Pacific officially registered and bearing Chinese names, even if they cannot be, by any stretch of the imagination, part of Chinese territory or exclusive economic zone. Considering what’s happening in the South China Sea, this name game is not as benign as it seems.
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Another lesson from the endless congressional investigations: make sure accusations will stick. Thanks to technology, it has become easier to document official wrongdoing.
Whistle-blowers are a big help, but their testimonies, as we are seeing in several cases, are never enough. Their stories must be matched by authentic documents and, if possible, by video footage of incriminating conversations or acts.
The honest and dedicated employees in our bureaucracy – yes, there are many of them – can help by using smartphones and computers to document wrongdoing. If the offender is their superior who walks the corridors of power, it’s useful to bear in mind that those corridors will not always be open to that superior.
I’ve been told that documenting evidence is what some civil servants, with advice from certain concerned sectors, are starting to do. With solid evidence, it becomes harder for offenders to wriggle out of an indictment and escape punishment.
Once the nation sees even the big fish landing behind bars, crooks may think twice before breaking the law.
All these parallel investigations should serve as a warning to thieves holding public office that they won’t be protected forever by their positions. They can face indictments over a decade after the offense, and their prosecution can be known nationwide, bringing shame to their families.
Today’s prosecutors – and persecutors – can become tomorrow’s defendants.
With that prospect in mind, the law might yet serve as a deterrent to wrongdoing. Who knows, we might yet see the rule of law prevail.