SC sides with Neri stops Senate’s arrest order

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — THE Supreme Court yesterday issued a status quo order in response to the petition of embattled Commission on Higher Education Chairman Romulo Neri who sought to stop the Senate from ordering his arrest in connection with the $329-million telecommunication contract with a Chinese firm.

Jose Midas Marquez, head of the SC-Public Information Office, stressed that although no temporary restraining order was issued as sought by Neri, the status quo order barred the Senate from arresting the CHED head while the tribunal is deliberating on his plea.

“The status quo ante is the condition prevailing prior to the Senate’s arrest order of Neri,” he pointed out.

In a resolution, the status quo order was directed to the Senate Blue Ribbon committee, and the committees of trade and commerce, and national defense and security.

The high court required the respondent Senate committees to give their comments on Neri’s petition within 10 days upon receipt of the resolution.

The SC also set the case for an oral argument on March 4, at 1:30 p.m. at the tribunal’s Session Hall.

In an eight-page supplemental petition, Neri through his lawyer Antonio R. Bautista contended he “did not commit any contemptuous acts “ that would warrant the arrest order against him.

An earlier petition was filed by Neri before the SC last December 7 likewise seeking a TRO against the Senate’s plan at the time to cite him in contempt for his failure to attend the hearings on the $329- million National Broadband Network contract with Zhong Xing Telecommunications Eqpt. Ltd (ZTE Corp.).

Before deciding to snub Senate subpoenas Neri had attended a Senate hearing where he implicated former Commission on Elections chairman Benjamin Abalos in the ZTE deal for allegedly lobbying him to approve the deal while he was still Director General of the National Economic & Development Authority. He has since been appointed as CHED chairman.

In his supplemental petition, Neri said the subpoena for him to attend the Nov. 20, 2007 hearing, which he did not attend, was duly answered by Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, invoking executive privilege for Neri “by order of the president.”

Invoking executive privilege for not attending the Senate hearings, Neri said Malacañang was concerned about “the impact of the bribery scandal involving high government officials on the country’s diplomatic relations and economic and military affairs, and the possible loss of confidence of foreign investors and lenders in the Philipines.”

The CHED official also said the Senate’s order for his arrest “pre-empted the Court’s action on the basic (December 7) petition and, with a touch of arrogance, disrespected this court — a coordinate and co-equal branch of Government.”

“The gross arbitrariness of respondent’s (Senate) order of arrest is patent on its face. This order of arrest eludes, and side-steps, the president’s invocation of executive privilege in behalf of petitioner,” Neri said.

“Quite clearly, respondent Senate committees would lord it over two co-equal branches of government, to wit ,the president and the Supreme Court.” he added.

In an order on January 30, the Senate’s Committees on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations (Blue Ribbon), Trade and Commerce and National Defense and Security directed the Senate sergeant-at- arms to arrest Neri for his failure to appear and testify in the committee’s hearings last year.

Neri’s refusal to attend, the Senate order said, resulted in “delays, impedes and obstructs” the inquiry into the reported irregularities.”