BEIJING—President Benigno Aquino III said Tuesday he wanted the Senate probe on the corruption allegations against Vice President Jejomar Binay to be concluded as soon as possible because it was becoming a distraction from the business of governance.
Aquino said the piecemeal probe was taking time away from pending bills in the Senate such as the 2015 budget, the Bangsamoro Basic Law, and the Fiscal Incentive Rationalization bill.
“If we are to focus on what needs to be done, there should be no distraction...We should file a case on those who should be slapped with cases and absolve those who are not guilty,” the President said.
“Can we not have the whole list? Is the proof really there? Is there substantial proof? Every question there is, you want the answer as soon as possible.”
Aquino also reiterated that Binay still enjoys presumption of innocence on allegations that he got kickbacks from the reportedly overpriced Makati City Hall car park building II.
But the President said he was not trying to kill the investigation when he called up Senate President Franklin Drilon to relay the Vice President’s request that the probe be stopped since a case has already been filed before the Ombudsman.
“No (I did not ask Senator Drilon to have the probe stopped). The very first sentence I said was ‘I was asked to relay this message, and at least now I have already told you.’ The conversation was only up to that. I only fulfilled my promise to relay the message,” the President said.
“I think part of my job here is to be neutral. At the end of the day, there will be evidence, one-way or the other, and then to ensure that all of the processes are carried out,” Aquino added.
The President also begged off from making a comment on Binay’s decision earlier in the day to back out of a public debate that he himself had proposed against Senator Antonio Trillanes IV.
“I cannot be his spokesman. He did not authorize me,” he said.
In an interview Tuesday, Binay said he didn’t want to push through with the Nov. 27 debate because Trillanes was portraying himself as the underdog.
“That’s what I don’t like. They’re making it seem that I’m a bully who’s taking advantage of him. My advantage, if ever I do have one, is that I want to talk about the facts,” Binay said.
Binay said there was no way to change his mind, and that his decision was final.
“I don’t want to be known as a bully or someone who takes advantage,” he added.
Binay announced his decision during his 72nd birthday celebration at the Navy headquarters.
Trillanes said he was surprised by the Vice President’s decision and described his reason for backing out as “the lamest excuse.”
“I was hoping against hope that he would somehow find the courage,” the senator said, adding that he was taking up “basic debating” lessons to prepare for the face-off with Binay.
He said the decision proved that the country’s second highest official could not keep his word.
“He’s going to be crucified for this, and he’s practically destroying whatever credibility he has left,” he added.
Trillanes said the debate was the best opportunity Binay had to prove his innocence.
Now that the Vice President had changed his mind about the debate, Trillanes said, he hoped he would also back out of running for president in 2016.
“For the sake of the country, I hope he will back out and stop deceiving the public,” Trillanes said.
The former military man said this was not the first time Binay had issued fighting words only to back down, saying that Binay had promised to back military rebels led by Trillanes who moved against then President Gloria Arroyo, only to back out.
But Joey Salgado, head of the Office of the Vice President Media Affairs, said Trillanes was trying to rewrite history with a revisionist version of the Manila Peninsula siege, which he described as a fiasco.
“History teaches us that revolutionary undertakings succeed with the support of the people, not because of one man with a messianic complex. The senator should stop blaming the Vice President for his failure as a mutineer,” said Salgado.
In the previous weeks, Trillanes had accused Binay of profiting from various projects in Makati City, including an alleged overpriced parking building built when Binay was still mayor.
He also accused the Vice President of using dummies to conceal his ill-gotten wealth, including a vast plantation in Rosario town, Batangas.
Binay had earlier challenged Trillanes to a one-on-one debate to respond to allegations of corruption hurled against him in a Senate probe.
The Vice President’s daughter, Senator Nancy Binay, said her father’s decision was the answer to her prayers and that the rest of the family was relieved.
Binay’s party mates and allies were also against the debate, which the Vice President himself had asked the Kapisanan ng mga Broadkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) to organize and facilitate.
The debate was supposed to be held at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City on Nov. 27.
The Palace said it respected Binay’s decision, adding that the Vice President has already taken the opportunity to air his side before the media.
In a daily press briefing, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte added that Binay must have weighted all his options before deciding to opt out of the debate.
KBP president Herman Basbaño said the organization respected Binay’s decision.
“We are realistic. This could happen in any project of this nature,” he said.
But the Trade Union Congress of Philippines said that Binay squandered his rare and genuine chance to prove wrong the strong and nagging allegations against him.
“He also lost the golden opportunity to demonstrate to the Filipino electorate if there are genuine leadership qualities in him that the working people are looking for prospective leaders through an independent environment prepared by KBP,” TUCP spokesperson Alan Tanjusay said.
Binay’s camp tried to put a positive spin on his decision to junk the debate.
“Now is not the time for talk but for action. The Vice President is prioritizing the country over self, recovery over bickering, the people over himself. He will be in the Visayas next week putting all
his efforts into the task of housing given to him by the President. The truth of the allegations is now in the hands of the Ombudsman,” said his spokesman for political concerns, Cavite Gov. Jonvic Remulla.
Binay’s United Nationalist Alliance also said engaging in a debate with Trillanes was a disservice to the millions who still have to recover from the Yolanda tragedy.
The party’s interim president, Navotas Rep. Tobias Tiangco, said he was “surprisingly happy” over Binay’s decision not to stoop to Trillanes’ level.
Paranaque Rep. Gus Tambunting, also an UNA member, said that only time will tell if the Vice President’s decision to back out of the debate with Trillanes would hurt his credibility.
1-BAP party-list Rep. Silvestre Bello III, a member of the House minority, said Binay had realized that debating with Trillanes “had no legal or political value” and so he backed out.
Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III, also a member of the opposition, said Binay did not have to prove anything to Trillanes. – With Sara Susanne D. Fabunan and Maricel V. Cruz
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