Probes, arrests shake Senate

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — THE third quarter of 2008 saw a major shake-up in the Senate leadership and dizzying investigations in the Upper Chamber highlighted by the arrest of some people involved in the alleged anomalies hounding the Arroyo government.

All of these dramatic scenes were seen as staging points for some presidential contenders in 2010, including Senators Manuel Villar, Jr., Richard Gordon, Panfilo Lacson, Loren Legarda, and Mar Roxas.

Villar was removed as Senate President in late November by 14 colleagues. The coup plotters believe that Villar’s ouster will “level the playing field” in the race to Malacanang in 2010. Villar preempted the coup attempt as he “opted” to resign after being told by Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, who eventually succeeded him as the 44th head of the Upper Chamber, that a resolution seeking his ouster had already garnered over 13 votes.

It was politically- motivated, Villar said of his ouster since he was always in second spot, if not on equal footing with Vice President Noli de Castro, in surveys of most admired presidentiables. However, some in the opposition bloc dismissed his claim. They questioned Villar’s work ethics.

Political observers say that the new majority, an odd mixture of perceived “foes” from the opposition and administration blocs, installed Enrile whom they believe is not “a threat” to their 2010 ambition.

The Senate remained firm in its resolve not to amend the Charter without the participation of the Upper Chamber. In a resolution authored by Sen. Francis Pangilinan, all 23 senators rejected attempts to amend the Constitution through Constituent Assembly.

Meanwhile, in late November, the Senate Blue Ribbon committee ordered the arrest of at least five people in relation to the reinvestigation of the P728-million fertilizer fund scam. They were ordered arrested for snubbing invitations to attend the hearing.

Topping the list of those arrested was former agriculture undersecretary Jocelyn “Joc-Joc” Bolante, the alleged architect of the anomaly. The Senate was able to get hold of him after the United States government deported him for violating immigration laws.

The Senate Blue Ribbon committee, headed by Gordon, had also directed the Senate Sergeant-at- arms to arrest traders Marites Aytona and Jimmy Paule as well as Feshan Philippines executives Redentor Antolin and Julie Gregorio.

Likewise, irked by snubbing the Senate probe into the alleged “excess euro” scandal in Russia, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago ordered the arrest of retired Philippine National Police Gen. Eliseo de la Paz and his wife, Ma. Fe.

De la Paz was held for nine days in Moscow after airport authorities found him carrying 105,000 euros or roughly P7 million which he failed to declare. He claimed that the amount was a “contingency fund” for the nine-man PNP delegation to the weeklong 77th International Police (Interpol) conference.

Meanwhile, despite differences, senators persevered with their legislative duties. Among the 184 bills approved by the Senate since the start of the 14th Congress in July last year, the “most noteworthy” is the Renewable Energy measure which will decrease the country’s dependence on imported fuel.

The Senate also passed at least 37 measures of national importance, including the cheaper medicines bill, the tax exemptions bill for minimum wage earners, and the establishment of Personal Equity and Retirement Account.

The ratification of the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement highlighted the role of the Philippines in the Asian regional trade and diplomatic communities.

Also passed by the Senate are the bill updating the Fire Code of the Philippines, a measure providing for fixed three-year term for the Armed Forces Chief of Staff, a bill demilitarizing the Department of National Defense and prohibiting a military officer from being appointed defense chief within a three-year period after his retirement from the service, a bill establishing a low-cost housing loan restructuring program, and a bill strengthening the Cooperative Code.

The Senate also passed on third reading the proposed Basic Compensation Act which provides additional support and compensation for educators in basic education. It will benefit more than 50,000 teachers and non-teaching personnel in all public schools, who will receive a P9,000 increase in their basic pay.