Non-Appearance of Economic Team at Senate Hearing; Cabinet Officials Invoked Executive Privileges - Palace

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Byline: DAVID CAGAHASTIAN and GABRIEL S. MABUTAS

Malacanang yesterday defended the absence of top Cabinet officials from a Senate hearing last Tuesday, saying that the reasons had already been explained, and that the information needed by the Senate had in fact been provided by lower level proxies.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said the government will continue to invoke executive privileges in refusing to cooperate with congressional inquiries on controversial issues, despite the Supreme Court's (SC) recent ruling to nullify certain provisions of Mrs. Arroyo's Executive Order 464 which bans the appearance of police and government officials in congressional inquiries without her consent.

Ermita said the Supreme Court's decision is "not yet final and executory," and that the Office of the Solicitor General is preparing a motion for reconsideration to appeal the court's decision.

"We are not against the Supreme Court decision but I was advised that we can still invoke EO 464 if such invitations come right now," Ermita said.

Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile reportedly fumed over the absence of Finance Secretary Margarito Teves and Trade Secretary Peter Favila, despite a recent SC decision that affirmed the authority of Congress to compel officials to appear in congressional hearings.

Ermita said Malacanang had been allowing officials to attend congressional hearings, except those which it deems being used by the opposition to assail the administration, citing figures that showed Malacanang had allowed officials to attend 99 out of the 111 Senate hearings this year.

Malacanang had also consented to the appearance of executive officials in 259 out of 261 congressional hearings of the House of Representatives.

Among the hearings not attended by officials were those dwelling on the "Hello, Garci" controversy, the fertilizer fund scam, and the controversial contract between the Philippines and China on the Northrail Project.

Last month, the high court unanimously declared constitutionally void Sections 2(b) and 3 of EO 464, which specify the officials covered who shall seek prior consent from the President before appearing in any inquiry.

These provisions were struck down because it frustrated the Congress' ability to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation, the SC ruled. The Court, however, upheld the authority of the President to stop the appearance of Cabinet officials during the so-called "Question Hour" in Congress.

Investigations during the "Question Hour" do not relate to specific legislations but are directed merely to congressional oversight over the implementation of laws.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye renewed his appeal to the Senate to observe courtesy in its affairs with the co-equal Executive branch.

"The Palace had no information that such a hearing was scheduled but we do note that the departments and agency involved were properly represented by highly capable officials," Bunye said.

NOT YET FINAL

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez justified yesterday the non-appearance of Cabinet officials at Senate hearings as he admitted that senior Palace officials have reached an agreement of sorts against attending congressional hearings until the Supreme Court's ruling against Executive Order 464 is rendered final. …