Friday, April 04, 2008

Neri, a landmark ruling if held on half a page

No frills, Neri v. Senate Committee should have been a cut-and-dry case.

The essential FACTS and ALLEGATIONS are not complicated:
The testimony of Romulo Neri, former NEDA Director General, before the three Senate committees was to the effect that President Arroyo to spare the government from funding the proposed National Broadband Network (NBN) project had been first amenable to undertake the said project on a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) arrangement; it was however put aside to give way to one financed by a government-to-government loan to be obtained by the Philippines from China. Over other competitors, the project worth $329.48 million, now better known as the NBN-ZTE deal, was ultimately awarded to ZTE, a China owned corporation.

Of all the people in the Philippines, the highest election official of the land, COMELEC Chairman Benjamin Abalos - who had been alluded a number of times in the “Hello, Garci tapes” - appeared to have brokered the deal and offered Mr. Neri 200 million pesos in exchange for NEDA’s approval of the project. Mr. Neri informed President Arroyo of the bribe offer but Arroyo did not immediately order the investigation of the “crime” directly reported to her by Mr. Neri or cause the prosecution of Abalos. Arroyo however told Mr. Neri not to accept the bribe. At such point and thereafter, Mr. Neri has refused to answer further questions from members of the committees about what he and the President talked about invoking executive privilege.

Rodolfo Noel Lozada Jr, an erstwhile NEDA consultant who reviewed the NBN project testified before the Senate committees that the project was overpriced by $197 million and accused Abalos of demanding a $130-million “commission” from the project.

Jose De Venecia III, the son of former Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., also testified before the Senate committees that the President’s husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo told him to “back off” from pursuing the project. De Venecia III co-owns Amsterdam Holdings Inc, which submitted a losing proposal for the NBN project.

In his testimony, De Venecia III further claimed that Mr. Arroyo wanted a $70-million “commission” from the project.
Following the testimony of Mr. Neri, three more important events happened: 1) The foreign loan was cancelled together with the NBN project; 2) Abalos quit as COMELEC chairman; and 3) Arroyo admitted over dzRH radio that she had been advised about the irregularities in the project the day before she witnessed the signing of the NBN-ZTE deal in China. (NOTE: The executed NBN-ZTE contract was also reportedly stolen.)

The ISSUE: Whether or not Mr. Neri should be required to answer more questions about the NBN-ZTE deal than he has already made available to the public despite his invocation of executive privilege?

What are NOT AT ISSUE: 1) That the President and other high-ranking executive officials, by established constitutional doctrine, are entitled to “executive privilege” to withhold information from Congress, the courts and the public, subject to constitutional limitations. 2) That by express provisions of the Constitution, Congress or any of its committees, have the power of inquiry in aid of legislation or by time-honored congressional practices and traditions and established constitutional doctrine the power of oversight, both powers being similarly subject to constitutional limitations.

The RULING (that never was):

The issue being thus narrowed, the APPLICABLE LAW is straightforward:
“Foreign loans may only be incurred in accordance with law and the regulation of the monetary authority. Information on foreign loans obtained or guaranteed by the Government shall be made available to the public.” (Section 21, Article XII of the Constitution)
The foregoing provision is an express constitutional limitation to the doctrinal executive privilege developed in American jurisprudence. The limitation is operative regardless of whether the information on foreign loan is being demanded by an ordinary taxpayer, the Monetary Board, or by Congress or any of its committees in aid of legislation. When it comes to information on foreign loans obtained or guaranteed by the government, judicial decisions of alien origin upholding the claim of executive privilege but are inconsistent with the constitutional requirement of disclosure are without force and effect. For how could a decision of an inferior foreign court modify an unmistakable constitutional mandate?

Under pain of penalty, Mr. Neri may therefore be compelled to disclose more information about the NBN-ZTE deal than he has already made available to the public despite invocation of executive privilege.

Postmortem ANALYSIS: Executive privilege encourages presidential unilateralism. When used against legislative oversight, the privilege serves to veto policymaking at its very inception. Why did the majority in Neri in the effort to uphold executive privilege choose to play blind to the clear language of accountability and transparency in the Constitution?

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