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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Senate hits SC rule nixing Pharmally contempt raps

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The Supreme Court was questioned Monday for throwing out the contempt and arrest orders issued by the Senate Blue Ribbon committee against Pharmally executives in 2021, but Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri defended the justices’ action by saying his colleagues were sometimes “too quick to pull the trigger.”

At a budget hearing for the judiciary Monday, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III asked if the Court’s action was tantamount to curtailing the right of Congress, especially the Senate, to cite witnesses or resource persons for contempt and punish them accordingly.

In 2021, the Blue Ribbon committee, led by then-Senator Richard Gordon, cited Linconn Ong and Michael Yang in contempt for allegedly giving false and evasive testimony during the Senate’s hearing on Pharmally’s anomalous contract with the government for the purchase of COVID-19 medical supplies.

Ong and Yang challenged the Senate order before the Supreme Court, which later ruled that the order was a grave abuse of discretion.

The sponsor of the proposed budget for the judiciary, Senator Juan Edgardo Angara, however, noted that the Supreme Court did not say the power of the Senate to cite witnesses in contempt as unconstitutional.

“They’re not questioning the exercise of the power, but the method in the exercise of citing the petitioners in contempt or ordering their arrest without giving them an opportunity to be heard,” he said.

In this particular case, Angara said the Supreme Court saw there was “grave abuse of discretion” because Ong and Yang were not given the opportunity to explain their testimonies.

“The Supreme Court did not question the contempt power of the Senate because it is provided in the Constitution. However, the High Court questioned the manner of exercise since we declared a witness in contempt,” he said.

Zubiri, on the other hand, said there needed to be guidelines for citing resource persons or witnesses in contempt.

“Sometimes, we are quick to pull the trigger in these particular cases, so we’d like to be guided accordingly,” he said, reminding committee chairmen to exercise their contempt powers with care.

Zubiri also said it was unlikely that witnesses would give self-incriminating answers in public hearings.

Senator Risa Hontiveros said Yang and Ong and others behind the Pharmally scandal are not off the hook yet.

Hontiveros said she was gratified that the Supreme Court upheld the Senate’s power to hold persons in contempt and to compel the cooperation of witnesses, in relation to its power to hold hearings in aid of legislation.

She also noted that the Supreme Court ruling did not absolve Yang and Ong of the serious accusations against them that were extensively discussed in the Blue Ribbon hearings.

In fact, she said the Office of the Ombudsman has already recommended the filing of criminal complaints against Ong, the former head of the Procurement Office of the Department of Budget and Management Lloyd Christopher Lao, and other public officers and private individuals tagged in the multi-billion Pharmally scandal.

The Ombudsman’s move was a validation of the findings and recommendations in the draft committee report of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, she said.

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