SC ruling welcomed by Palace, rejected by Senate

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — Malacañang welcomed as a “Solomonic decision” the Supreme Court proposal for a compromise which would allow Commission on Higher Education Chairman Romulo Neri to finally return to the Senate and testify in the NBN investigation.

Neri confirmed his attendance in the next Senate hearing after his lawyers agreed to the proposal. However, senators rejected the compromise.

Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo said the Supreme Court decision is a “welcome development, like a breath of fresh air amidst these polluted political maneuverings.”

“The Solomonic decision serves the interest of all concerned,” Fajardo said.

The compromise was agreed Tuesday night after the oral arguments on Neri’s petition for the high tribunal to stop the Senate from enforcing the order for his arrest for failure to attend its hearings on the NBN-ZTE mess.

Neri in his first appearance before the Senate confessed to being offered a P200 million bribe by former Commission on Elections chairman Benjamin Abalos , Sr. to favor a supplier contract with Chinese firm ZTE Corp. and that he informed the President about it.

But he refused to elaborate, invoking executive privilege and ignored summonses, citing Executive Order 464 which barred Cabinet officials from attending congressional inquiries without prior approval of the President.

The high court said Neri should face the Senate again but senators could no longer interrogate him about at least three issues. These are if President Macapagal-Arroyo asked him to approve the contract despite his report of bribery and kickbacks, if she ordered him to prioritize the project and if she followed up on the contract.

Fajardo said the Supreme Court decision gives the go-signal for Neri to answer relevant questions that will not infringe on executive privilege.

In the same way, she said the Palace could only hope that the Senate would adhere “with fidelity to the sense and decision of the SC.”

Jose Midas Marquez, SC spokesperson, said that all questions where Neri would invoke executive privilege will be sent back to the high court which will study and decide whether the questions indeed transgress the realm of executive privilege or not.

Marquez said that this will help the SC in further determining the parameters and specifics of executive privilege.

He said he is confident that the high court will be able to resolve in a few weeks time if executive privilege covered the three questions the Senate asked Neri during last’s year’s ZTE hearing and which the tribunal has enjoined the senators from asking in their next hearing.

“If senators don’t buy Neri’s invoking of executive privilege, they can question it before the high SC,” Marquez said.

NO WAY

The Senate however rejected the compromise, saying senators can’t give up their right to investigate anomalies.

“Hindi namin hahayaang ikompromiso ang po-wers ng Senate,” Senate President Manuel Villar, Jr. said. “Kami dito ay nalulungkot sa nangyari dahilan sa inaasahan namin lalung-lalo na sa pakikinig sa mga tanong ng mga justices na inistablish nila na talagang hindi puwedeng magamit ang executive privileges,” he said.

“Ang ikinakaba lang kasi naman namin dito ay baka ito ay magamit sa mga darating na mga panahon ng mga cabinet member o mga nanunungkulan sa gobyerno na lahat sila kapag may ipapaliwanag at ayaw nilang ipaliwanag yun ay dudulog sila sa Supreme Court at gagamitin nila itong compromise formula ng Supreme Court na precedent, wika nga,” Villar said.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel, Jr. was enraged. “He( Neri) can appear but we cannot compel him to testify, ano yun? It will result in our inability to ferret out the truth.”

“In my view, the role of the Supreme Court is to say what the law is. But if they are now proposing a compromise, that is a different matter,” he said.

“The Senate must stand firm, not back off, that Neri cannot just frivolously invoke executive privilege. A compromise will perpetuate the issue raised unless the Supreme Court decisively interprets the constitutional articles,” he added.

“The people expect the Supreme Court to discharge its role as arbiter of conflicts between the executive and legislative to avoid a constitutional crisis,” Pimentel pointed out.

Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan also expressed concern saying it could be made as a precedent.

Personally I would prefer that we maintain and ensure our prerogatives as a co-equal remain undiminished and supreme within our jurisdiction which is legislation and oversight. We should weigh matters very, very seriously before we consent to allowing for the suspension of our prerogatives as a co-equal while the case is pending,” he said.