By FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JEJOMAR C. BINAY
The power of Congress to conduct public inquiries is bound by certain parameters set by the Supreme Court.
In G.R. No. 89914, Bengzon vs. Blue Ribbon Committee, legislators were reminded by the Supreme Court to ensure that the rights of individuals who are subjects of inquiries are not violated.
Says the Court: “ . . . the mere semblance of legislative purpose would not justify an inquiry in the face of the Bill of Rights. The critical element is the existence of, and the weight to be ascribed to, the interest of the Congress in demanding disclosures from an unwilling witness. We cannot simply assume, however, that every congressional investigation is justified by a public need that overbalances any private rights affected. To do so would be to abdicate the responsibility placed by the Constitution upon the judiciary to insure that Congress does not unjustifiably encroach upon an individual’s right to privacy nor abridge his liberty of speech, press, religion, or assembly.”
It is not within the power and authority of Congress to determine criminal liability. It does not have the competence to do so, nor the rules and procedures that will protect the rights of the accused and their witnesses.
Such constitutional proscription is affirmed by the Supreme Court. In its ruling in G.R. 180643, Neri vs. Senate Committee on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations, the High Tribunal said: “The determination of who is/are liable for a crime or illegal activity, the investigation of the role played by each official, the determination of who should be hailed to court for prosecution, and the task of coming up with conclusions and findings of fact regarding anomalies, especially the determination of criminal guilt, are not functions of the Senate. Congress is neither a law enforcement nor a trial agency.”
Yet, members of Congress continue to use the institution to harass, vilify, and malign the reputations of individuals, especially perceived political enemies. During the previous administration, Congress – particularly the Senate – was transformed into a tool for persecution and demolition.
The hearings of a subcommittee of the Senate BlueRibbon Committee against me and my family is a case in point.
I used the word traumatic during a recent media forum to describe what my family went through as subjects of a supposed inquiry that was in reality a politically-inspired inquisition.
It continues to disappoint me as a lawyer that two of the senators who took part in this inquisition are also lawyers. Surely they knew that their conduct in the hearings flagrantly violated the rulings of the Supreme Court. They knew that their findings would only be recommendatory because Congress has no power to prosecute, much more decide on the guilt or innocence of those they investigate.
So why did they persist in conducting the hearings? Because the investigation was a demolition job, plain and simple.
Sadly, we are a negative thinking society. We tend to immediately believe the worst about a person. And for 11 months, 20 public hearings were conducted, with some media outlets eagerly broadcasting and publishing every false, perjurious, baseless, defamatory, and hearsay statements made by the so-called witnesses and some senators.
After their protracted hearings – described by my good friend former Senator Joker Arroyo, who once headed the Blue Ribbon Committee, as the longest Blue Rbbon hearing in history – a report was released recommending prosecution “after proper proceedings” and “by the proper government agency” – precisely what we have been saying from the start.
During the Senate hearings, witnesses were allowed to lie and present misleading or false information. They were extended immunity from suit, and placed under the Witness Protection Program (WPP). Even when their blatant lies were exposed, these so-called witnesses were never cited for contempt.
In contrast, those who testified on my behalf were bullied and threatened. My son Junjun was humiliated in public, ordered detained by some senators for asserting his rights, and bodily dragged from the detention area to the hearing room.
I was declared guilty even before the hearings began, a clear violation of the constitutional presumption of innocence accorded to all citizens.
And now, three years after their so-called inquiry ended, can any of these senators identify a piece of legislation filed?
It is about time that Congress revisit the rules governing legislative inquiries.
Rules on decorum must be imposed. Lawmakers should be censured if they insult or make disparaging remarks against individuals attending the hearings. The rights of those invited – not as accused persons but as resource persons – must be protected. Congress may require those who initiate such inquiries to file within a fixed number of days their proposed legislation which would justify the entire exercise.
It is the function of legislative bodies, says the eminent British parliamentarian Walter Bagehot, to legislate, educate, and inform. Congress should not be a venue for destroying lives and reputations. There must always be respect for the rights and the dignity of individuals.