The legal tussle between the House of Representatives and the Court of Appeals regarding the detention for contempt of six Ilocos Norte officials at the Batasan complex is far from over.
In fact, it may have become more complicated with no less than Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice Maria Lourdes A. Sereno dipping her fingers on the issue and raising concerns over judicial meddling in the affairs of a coequal branch of government. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
The controversy started when the House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability began a probe of the use by the Ilocos Norte provincial government of its share in the excise taxes on locally produced Virginia-type cigarettes to purchase motor vehicles in 2011 and 2012, amounting to P66.45 million. These purchases were said to have been made through cash advances and without the benefit of public bidding.
The cash advances involved the procurement of 40 units of multicabs worth P18.6 million, five second-hand Hyundai buses priced at P15.3 million and 70 minitrucks costing P32.5 million.
Summoned to appear before the committee were six Ilocos Norte officials: the provincial treasurer and two employees at the Provincial Treasurer’s Office; the provincial budget officer; the officer in charge-accountant; and the chairman of the Bids and Awards Committee and the Provincial Planning and Development Office.
The six all failed to attend the first hearing held by the committee on May 2, claiming that Gov. Imee R. Marcos had not issued any instructions for them to do so. When they were compelled by subpoena to attend on May 29, they refused to answer certain questions relevant to the probe. All of them said they did not remember the transactions involving the vehicle purchases. They also insisted that they should be shown the originals of the documents involved in the procurement.
Piqued by the refusal of the provincial officials—now collectively known as the “Ilocos 6”—to answer questions and what appeared to be an attempt to cover up the paper trail on the irregular cash advances, the House committee cited them in contempt and ordered their detention within the Batasan complex, where they still remain to this day.
The Ilocos 6 thereafter petitioned the Court of Appeals (CA) to compel the House to release them. The CA granted their petition, but the House resented what it considered the court’s lack of respect for its prerogative to cite witnesses in contempt. It retaliated by issuing a show-cause order to CA Associate Justices Stephen C. Cruz, Edwin D. Sorongon and Nina G. Antonio-Valenzuela, the members of the court’s fourth division that ordered the release of the Ilocos 6.
Sereno and CA Presiding Justice Andres B. Reyes Jr. (who has since been appointed as SC associate justice) issued statements of support for the three appellate court justices and asked the House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability to recall its show-cause order, citing “implications on separation of powers”. One of the CA justices who issued the order releasing the Ilocos 6 said they ordered the release “to determine really if the detention was legal”.
But Party-list Rep. Harry L. Roque Jr. of Kabayan, a University of the Philippines Law professor, defended the power of Congress to hold witnesses in contempt. He said that rather than file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, the six Ilocos officials should have instead filed a petition for certiorari. He added that the action of the CA to grant the habeas corpus petition of the Ilocos 6 was “objectionable” and undermines the integrity of the House as an institution.
Another legislator, Rep. Salvador Paulino C. Leachon of the First District of Oriental Mindoro, emphasized that the House committee’s order of contempt is an “inherent, actual, implied and auxiliary” exercise of its legislative functions.
The real issue here is the legality of the use by the Ilocos Norte provincial government of funds for the purchase of vehicles. Marcos has been invited twice to the hearings, but has failed to do so despite given the chance to clear her name.
It is said the Ilocos Norte provincial government violated at least four laws. First, the use of cash advances in government procurement violates provisions of Commission on Audit (COA) Circular 92-382. Under the circular, regular cash advances are allowed only for salaries and wages, commutable allowances, honoraria and other similar payments to officials and employees, petty operating expenses.
Second, Republic Act (RA) 7171 limits the projects that can be implemented by local governments that are given a share from the Virginia-type tobacco excise taxes to cooperative, livelihood, agro-industrial and infrastructure projects.
Third, Rep. Johnny T. Pimentel of the Second District of Surigao del Sur, chairman of the committee handling the probe, has pointed out that purchases were done by authority of Marcos without seeking the authority of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan, which is a violation of the Local Government Code.
Finally, as there was no bidding process for the buses and minitrucks, the purchases violated RA 9184, or the Government Procurement
The COA has authenticated copies of documents showing that it was Marcos who had requested, approved the request, attested to the availability of funds, approved the cash advance for the purchase and signed the checks for the irregular purchases. Hence, she would be the best person in authority to enlighten the House committee—and the public—about the transactions.
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