By Wilnard Bacelonia

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri (File photo) 

MANILA – Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri cited on Monday the recent decision of the Supreme Court (SC) on the Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. executives petition as a reminder to senators who are handling committee chairmanships not to “quickly pull the trigger” in citing in contempt their resource persons.

“I’m only citing this for the benefit of my chairpersons kasi (because) it’s in our rules that each committee has the power to cite in contempt their resource persons. Of course sometimes, we’re quick to pull the trigger in this particular case. So we’d like to be guided accordingly,” Zubiri said during the Senate plenary debates for the 2024 proposed budget of the Judiciary.

“But in all honesty, when we have public hearings particularly on Public Order and Security, Blue Ribbon, none of them will give self-discriminating answers. They will say no, we did not do that even if there were five other witnesses pointing to them that they did it,” he added.

In its decision, the SC found that the Senate “acted with grave abuse of discretion”, specifically in the committee’s precipitate act of citing petitioners Lincoln Ong and Michael Yang in contempt and ordering their arrests without giving them the opportunity to be heard.

In the previous Congress when the Senate was looking into the Pharmally’s contract with the national government in its purchase of coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) medical supplies, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, chaired by former Senator Richard Gordon then, cited Ong and Yang in contempt for allegedly giving “false and evasive” answers.

Sa simpleng salita, hindi nila kinukuwestyon ang ating kapanghyarihan sa Senado, yung contempt power natin sapagkat nasa Saligang Batas po yan. Pero yung paraan po nung pag-exercise nito pagka-nagdeklara po tayo ng isang witness in contempt, eh kailangan may due process po (In simple terms, they are not questioning our power in the Senate, our contempt power because it is stated in the Constitution. But the way of declaring a witness in contempt was exercised, it needs to have due process),” Senator Sonny Angara said as sponsor of the Judiciary’s 2024 proposed budget.

Siguro balikan na lang yung circumstances of the case and pag-aralan (Maybe we can go back to the circumstances of the case and study it) so we can be guided accordingly for the future, you honor,” he said.

Zubiri requested the Senate Legal Division to come up with a memorandum containing the decision and its clarification in layman’s terms.

Senator Risa Hontiveros said Ong and Yang and other masterminds of the Pharmally scandal “are not off the hook yet.”

“The Supreme Court ruling did not absolve Michael Yang and Linconn Ong of the serious accusations against them that were extensively discussed in our Senate Blue Ribbon hearings,” she said in a statement.

“In fact, the Office of the Ombudsman has already recommended the filing of criminal complaints against Ong, former PS-DBM head Lloyd Christopher Lao, and other public officers and private individuals tagged in the multi-billion Pharmally scandal,” she added.

As one of the senators who took part in the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee’s pursuit of accountability in the Pharmally scandal, Hontiveros said she is happy that SC has upheld the Senate’s power to hold persons in contempt and compel the cooperation of witnesses, in relation to its power to hold hearings in aid of legislation.

“As proven time and time again, Senate investigations perform a wide range of important public functions – from improving our laws to exposing corruption, abuses and other misdeeds which affect public service,” Hontiveros said. (with a report from Leonel Abasola/PNA)