Monday, September 05, 2005

The Search for Truth

by Sec. Ricardo Saludo

“Is there no one else who will sign for the truth?” With those words, Marinduque Rep. Edmundo Reyes Jr. made a final plea for fellow representatives to support the Amended Complaint against President Gloria Arroyo. As of Sept. 2, the opposition needed 30 signatures to reach 79. Then it could call on 23 promised endorsements of congressmen who Reyes said would sign up if the complaint gets the nod of one-third of the House to propel it to the Senate.

The opposition insists that only through a Senate trial can the truth about allegations against the President emerge. Fortunately, the situation is not as black and white as “no impeachment, no truth.” If the House does not vote to impeach, there are other due process venues to uncover the facts. Here are some of them, all non-partisan and independent bodies, along with the accusations they can probe and prosecute:

The Amended Complaint alleges a conspiracy to cheat in the May 2004 elections. While President Arroyo cannot be sued now, the people who allegedly colluded with her can be investigated and charged by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) or the Ombudsman.

Among those who could be probed and prosecuted is former Comelec commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, believed by many to be implicated in the alleged wiretaps now circulating. If he does not return from abroad, he can be tried in absentia, and his purported collusion with any candidate, administration or opposition, can be recounted and proven in court.

The opposition has accused members of the First Family of receiving jueteng payolas. The Ombudsman can look into these accusations, and the President has, in fact, requested it to do so. A former Palace functionary claims that Comelec officials received bribes from the wife of a reputed jueteng lord after a dinner at the President’s family home. The Ombudsman can investigate the widely denied story and file charges in the Sandiganbayan against anyone found to have given or gotten payoffs.

The opposition contends that the President acquiesced to violations of human rights and election laws, including alleged army actions and the supposed use of state funds and programs to buy votes. The Commission on Human Rights and the Comelec can probe these allegations and, if warranted, file charges against those implicated in civil and military courts. In such proceedings, the President’s involvement, if there is any, can be detailed and made public.

Another impeachment charge is the approval of contracts purportedly disadvantageous to the government. The Commission on Audit (COA) and the Ombudsman are empowered to look into all public transactions, and the latter can prosecute officials involved in the Sandiganbayan.

Again, while the President cannot be brought to court at this time, her actions can be reported by the COA or the Ombudsman in any trial or preliminary investigation of officials who recommended contract approval. Lawyers of the Department of Justice cleared these transactions on legal grounds, while the inter-agency Investment Coordinating Committee chaired by the National Economic & Development Authority, affirmed their economic rationale and financial viability.

All the evidence and testimony from the different proceedings would go through strict due process, making them highly credible and legally affirmed. If there are any findings about the President, they could be incorporated in future proceedings that may be undertaken against her.

Moreover, the multiple accusations in the Amended Complaint could be investigated and prosecuted at the same time in various venues, making the search for truth much faster than if the Senate were to receive evidence one charge at a time. Media could sum up proceedings and findings from all investigative and judicial bodies every day. And Congress would be free to do its main job: legislation.

Of course, some of the material the opposition might have wanted to present in Congress could be ruled inadmissible or given little weight by the constitutional commissions and the courts. Hearsay testimony, illegal recordings, and uncorroborated claims might have been fair game in a Senate trial, but not in criminal proceedings. (One wonders why impeachment should have looser evidentiary standards, considering that unseating a nationally elected leader is far graver in its consequences for the republic than jailing a convict.)

Moreover, some congressmen may balk at letting investigators and prosecutors of the constitutional bodies, as well as justices of the courts, take the credit and hog the cameras in the struggle for truth and justice. One Makati congressman recalls that several of his colleagues were keen to impeach Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. in 2003, hoping to bask in the media limelight as prosecutors during the Senate trial. “They wanted to do a Joker,” he says, referring to Joker Arroyo’s telegenic performance in the Estrada impeachment which boosted his successful senatorial bid in 2001.

A third objection the opposition may have is that the commissions and the courts, being impartial, non-political bodies, would not be focused on removing the President. They would not be making special efforts to build up evidence against her; nor would they give much time and attention to partisan filibusters and propaganda not very helpful to investigation and prosecution.

Indeed, the constitutional bodies and the courts should resist becoming battlefields for contending political factions, the way the impeachment process is. They should be intent on unearthing hard evidence and unimpeachable testimony, not playing to Congress, media and public. Their processes should be marked by sobriety, impartiality, strict due process, and careful evaluation of all findings and allegations.

In short, the constitutional commissions and the courts should be arenas for facts, not factions. But then, isn't that what the search for truth is all about?