Law and politics in Senate hearings

As guilty as they may be in the public eye, legislators who are accused of receiving kickbacks from their pork barrel allocations have every right to defend themselves against attempts to prejudge their guilt. The determination of wrongdoing is best left to the justice system. But, this brings up the question of the function of Senate hearings, especially when the issue being investigated is already the subject of an ongoing investigation by the legal system.

The Senate is a political body primarily charged with the task of legislation. From time to time, it conducts hearings and investigations in aid of this function—not to establish culpability, for that is a function of the courts, but to gather information needed to amend or to craft better laws. This, as we have seen, is easier said than done.

Even where it assumes the demeanor of a court or of a fact-finding body, a Senate inquiry may all too often succumb to the political code of partisanship. Anyone who has watched any of these investigations “in aid of legislation” could not fail to note how easily they lend themselves to political grandstanding and the pursuit of personal animosities. The interventions can sometimes be so bizarre that, to make sense of them, one has to remind oneself that this is not exactly a courtroom trial but a political exercise that has assumed the form of an inquest.

In other countries, the thin line separating a valid legislative inquiry from politics-as-usual is scrupulously preserved by recourse to what are sometimes called “blue ribbon” panels or commissions. These ad hoc bodies are specifically created to conduct investigations and hearings on controversial issues. The most celebrated of these are the Warren Commission that investigated the Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 Commission that conducted a comprehensive study of the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States. Made up of nonpartisan experts and eminent individuals with unassailable credentials, such commissions do not have the power to indict or legislate. Their sole responsibility is to conduct an exhaustive inquiry and produce a report on a matter of extreme public interest. The report usually ends with explicit recommendations for future government policy.

Indeed, the term “blue ribbon” recalls its original meaning as a badge of honor or distinction given to persons known for their integrity and achievements. In Philippine political history, however, the phrase came to be appropriated by the “Senate committee on accountability of public officers and investigations.” In this context, it became synonymous with the most potent of the Senate committees, armed with the power to investigate almost anything and summon almost anyone to its hearings. Rather than being a source of objective and exhaustive information on a given issue, the Senate blue ribbon committee has stood out in the annals of Philippine politics as a venue for exposing official corruption.

This has had good and bad outcomes. Where the professional investigative agencies of government are easily trumped by politics, as they are in our country, the blue ribbon committee deploys political power against power to expose wrongdoing. That is fine. But, by preempting legal and judicial processes, congressional investigations often yield information that is of dubious value from the standpoint of criminal prosecution or of legislation. This is where the dysfunction lies. Findings from such investigations seldom ripen into full-blown indictments successfully prosecuted in courts of law.

After their implicit purpose has been served—which is basically to portray the political enemy in a negative light—the prosecution agencies of government are left to piece together a case that has been milked for its publicity value. Their task is far from easy. Even as the accused may scream that they are being tried by publicity, these hearings give them a preview of how the government intends to pursue the cases. This is a tremendous advantage to any defense team. After witnesses and documents have been exposed, defense lawyers can now design a strategy that exploits lapses and inconsistencies in the testimonies and the missing links in the documentary evidence.

The main objective of the defense lawyers in such cases may not even be to prove the innocence of the accused with any finality. They may simply aim to stretch every point in the legal process in such a way as to keep their clients out of jail—until the next elections. In the meantime, the accused will continue to complain that their cases are politically motivated, and therefore, by implication, these must be resolved in the political arena.

The more the Senate hearings demonstrate the political angle of the charges against Senators Enrile, Estrada, and Revilla, the easier it will be to justify removing these cases from the jurisdiction of the courts. This is truly unfortunate. For, if there is anything about these cases that is crying for recognition, it is that they do not owe their birth to politicians.

The National Bureau of Investigation stumbled upon the pork barrel scam quite by accident. The Inquirer picked it up and relentlessly pursued it until it became an issue for all of media. The whistle-blowers bravely came out one by one, assured of protection by the Department of Justice and encouraged by the moral support of an awakened public. The Commission on Audit furnished confirmation of their allegations.

The first cases have now been filed with the Office of the Ombudsman. Politics should leave them where they are.

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