September 22, 2010

"...with a little help from my friends"

With friends like Rico E. Puno, the President doesn't need Edcel Lagman, Danilo Suarez, Len Horn or even Gloria Arroyo. Puno's doing a great job, all by himself, of alienating and isolating the President and making people doubt the President's resolve to stop jueteng once and for all. Indeed, the President doesn't need enemies with friends like Puno.

On Martial Law day 2010, Mr. Puno faced a curiously-composed panel led by Senator TG Guingona (son of a former Vice President and Senator), and Senator Ferdinand R. Marcos II (you know whose son he is) and attended by, among others, Senate President (Palpatine himself) Juan Ponce Enrile and his Padawan Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada (you also know whose son he is), Senator Chiz Escudero and Senator Loren Legarda. The topic was jueteng and the subject was himself, as it turns out.

Because of revelations from retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz that some members of Aquino III's official family were on the take from jueteng lords, the Senate Panel asked Cruz to "name names." Instead of doing so, he simply fished out a document and handed it over. Senator Guingona then read the names, among which was Mr. Puno's.

When asked about it, he categorically denied the charge. That should have been enough. However, because of previous statements that Puno himself made that he had been approached by friends and relatives, a phrase he himself repeated during the Senate hearing, about any interest in being contacted by jueteng lords, the Senators now wanted Puno to "name names."

That is when the puno (tree, in filipino) became pader or literally a wall--a stonewall.

One after the other, Marcos, Guingona, Legarda, Escudero and Ponce Enrile, the Senators attempted to extract the information from Puno as to who these "friends and relatives" were and each time, he declined, refused, and feigned forgetfulness--prompting a Senator to decry his "selective memory." Note that the Senators were not after him, for after all Puno did say that he had turned them down outright (which was commendable), but after those still unidentified "friends and relatives" who attempted to be the bridge between him (and through him, to the President) and the lords of jueteng. Despite this, Puno literally stonewalled.

At some point, in his exasperation, the Senate President even pleaded (his phrase, "I am pleading with you") to Puno to save the President from further embarrassment and to just simply be candid and "name names." Despite that, he refused.

In less than 100 days, Mr. Puno, the President's friend, has shown himself to be not only deadwood (during the IIRC hearings, he admitted that he was ill-equipped to deal with crisis situations such as hostage taking as he was not trained for it; indeed, one wonders what special qualifications or training he has, other than the President's clear and unshaken trust and confidence in him, that would qualify him to oversee the police) but also, in this case, kindling that could cause a major conflagration. The President should see beyond personal friendship and look at the much larger picture of what one like Mr. Puno can do, or is doing, to his fledgling administration.

In his less than 100 days in office, the President has shown that he can be obstinate. His obstinacy can yield good results--his insistence on not recognizing Mr. Bangit as Chief of Staff caused his early retirement; his diatribe against having blaring sirens has lessened the noise pollution. Yet that same obstinacy when it comes to people who are perceived as his "friends" or close confidantes can also yield bad fruit--as in the case of Mr. Puno.

It is a tough call for a man thrust into a lonely job. This President has shown how much he values relationships; and that, by itself, is not a bad thing. The quality of his relationships may be the key to making great decisions and arriving at great insights. But when these relationships become the millstone around his neck, the President must make the tough call to let go.

Mr. Puno should do what every decent civil servant is required: serve the country beyond his own interests. If he is no longer an asset to the President (as the hostage taking and this jueteng investigation have shown), then he should make it easy on the President: leave and not wait to be fired.

September 02, 2010

IMHO, Part 2

The President himself cannot be subjected to "clarificatory questioning" before a body he himself created. With due respect to the Justice Secretary and the President's Chief Legal Counsel, the fact-finding body created by the President to investigate the August 23, 2010 Hostage-taking Incident cannot even consider the possibility (as hinted by the Justice Secretary) of calling the President to testify or give a statement.

Under the 1987 Constitution, the Congress cannot even invite the President to appear before it to give testimony, with the sole exception being the Question Hour under Article VI, sec. 22 (relating to appearance by Department Heads, with the consent of the President). The only appearance that the President makes before Congress is the State of the Nation Address or any other occasion when he chooses to address a Joint Session of Congress, with advice to and the consent of both Houses.

More than the legalities, however, the President should not be subjected to such questioning.

This ad hoc procedure (it is not found in any statute or constitutional norm) demeans and belittles the Office of the President. Moreover, it exposes the Office to the possibility that the President may be made to "testify" outside of an impeachment trial or to "give statements" outside of policy which may lead to impeachment motions. Finally, it serves no useful purpose because it is neither "in aid of legislation" or towards a determination of probable cause or for purposes of impeachment.

The President's daily "tick tock" is something that he may choose to disclose or keep confidential. Should he be called--and should he choose to--"testify" before the De Lima panel, the President should now consider his daily activities "fair game" for any sort of inquiry.

More than this, however, there is no need for the President himself to "give his side" because these are either matters of "judicial notice" or public record. Everyone in the Executive Branch is considered his alter egos if they are acting within their official functions, including the Justice Secretary who is the one contemplating the "testimony" of the President. They should be the ones "testifying", not the President.

The First President Aquino made a crucial mistake which "demeaned" her Presidency when she sued two journalists for libel. The Second President Aquino would make a crucial mistake which would belittle his Presidency if he does not shoot this ill-conceived idea down before it sprouts wings.

Unsolicited advise to the Second President Aquino so that we can close this episode, place accountability squarely where it should be and move forward:

1. Remove every perception or hint that there could even be a whitewash by:
1.1. Dissolving the fact-finding panel led by Justice Secretary De Lima; and
1.2. Instead, inviting Congress to convene a Joint Committee to investigate this incident once and for all, with a definite and limited timeline and with a clear commitment to not invoke "Executive Privilege."
1.3. Placing all relevant heads of agencies and persons concerned at the Joint Committee's disposal.
2. Personally, ask for the most pugnacious, most hostile, most adversarial members of Congress to co-chair the Joint Committee (e.g., Joker Arroyo for the Senate and Edcel Lagman/Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for the House).
3. Make it clear, however, to the Joint Committee that you expect an objective, impartial, sober and quick resolution to this issue through a clear, detailed, objective Report.
4. Take action on the Report as you see fit.

Fans of The West Wing may remember a similar tack taken by the fictitious Bartlet administration in that television show when the fictitious President Bartlet was caught not disclosing a debilitating illness to the public. Sometimes, fiction is stranger than truth and, in this case, more compelling, instructive and relevant.