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MANILA, Philippines -- Four members of President Benigno Aquino III’s Cabinet shunned invitations to appear before the Senate hearing Friday on the issues raised against resigned Interior Undersecretary Rico E. Puno even as the Palace set new conditions for those seeking the officials’ attendance.
The no-shows were Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., Environment Secretary Ramon Paje, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and new Interior Mar Secretary Roxas III.
Earlier, lawyer Leni Gerona-Robredo, the widow of the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, declined the invitation to attend the hearing conducted by Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago.
De Lima had also said she was not attending Friday’s hearing.
Palace spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Malacanang is not invoking executive privilege to prevent Cabinet officers from attending congressional inquiries.
"We have conveyed our willingness to allow the invited Cabinet officials to attend," he said.
"But we want to know what specific issues they want to ask to allow our Cabinet officials to prepare ... We want to know what is the scope of the questions," he added.
He stressed that Cabinet officials will not answer any questions outside those sent them beforehand.
"If they are not competent to answer, they will not answer," Lacierda said.
Santiago had earlier aired fears of her inquiry into Puno, a close personal friend of Aquino’s, was being "sabotaged."
The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, on the other hand, said despite what it called a “boycott of Palace officials,” several revelations were made during Friday’s hearings “that raised more questions as to the role” of Puno within the DILG.
“We are appalled by the apparent lack of interest shown by some Palace officials and senators allied with the administration,” Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr. said in a statement. “Kapag kalaban ng Palasyo ang iimbestigahan, all-out. Kapag kaibigan ng Pangulo ang iimbestigahan, no-show sila (If it is an enemy of the Palace being investigated, they are all-out. But if it is a friend of the President being investigated, they are no-shows). This clearly points to a double standard under the so-called 'daang matuwid’ (straight path). The boycott of cabinet officials is reminiscent of the time when Gloria Arroyo's EO 464 was still in effect.”
Executive Order 464 was issued by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to prevent government officials and personnel from testifying before congressional inquiries without her personal clearance.
Arroyo issued it in an attempt to prevent government officials from testifying on the alleged rigging of the 2004 presidential elections, which she won against the late action star Fernando Poe Jr.
According to Reyes, Friday’s hearing made two major points:
“1. Jueteng is alive and well all over the country. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago posed the question correctly: How can jueteng flourish on a nationwide scale if there is no protector at the national level. Archbishop Oscar Cruz also was correct in saying that the failure to stamp out the illegal numbers game is the fault of the executive, not the legislative.
2. We learned of the unusual influence and power wielded by so-called observers and consultants in relation to the purchase of weapons by the Philippine National Police. For example … Puno was able to call a meeting of bidders even if he is not a member of the Bids and Awards Committee. The full extent of his participation in the process still needs probing.”
“Even if the alleged anomalous arms contracts did not push through, the irregularities still need to be probed by concerned government agencies and those responsible should be held accountable,” Reyes said. “The public deserves no less.”