On Blue Ribbon Committees and ethics

Calling A Spade
Solita Collas-Monsod

Posted on September 26, 2013

ITS FORMAL NAME is Committee on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations of the Senate of the Philippines, but nobody calls it that. It is known to us as the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, currently chaired by Teofisto Guingona III. And it has jurisdiction over “All matters relating to, including investigation of, malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance in office by officers and employees of the government, its branches, agencies, subdivisions and instrumentalities; implementation of the provision of the Constitution on nepotism; and investigation of any matter of public interest on its own initiative or brought to its attention by any member of the Senate. Rule X, Section 13 (36)”

That is a mouthful. But in short, it has jurisdiction not just over all government employees, but everything else under the sun of “public interest.” Phew. No wonder it is called the most powerful committee in the Senate, and its chairmanship is much-sought after.

As far as I can tell, the Philippine Senate’s Blue Ribbon Committee has no counterpart in the United States Senate. This is a made-in-the Philippines Committee. What they have in the US are blue ribbon panels, also called blue ribbon commissions, formed on an ad hoc basis to study/investigate/analyze some important government question/issue, and are composed of independent/nonpartisan experts and statesmen (the “best and the brightest”) who give their findings and recommendations, which presumably can then be acted on by the decision-makers involved. Examples of these bodies are the Warren Commission, which investigated the Kennedy assassination, and more recently, the so-called Iraq Study Group, and the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

In other words, the term “Blue Ribbon” connotes independence, non-partisanship, “the best and the brightest” (experts/statesmen). Which does not exactly describe the membership of our own Senate Blue Ribbon Committee. So, if this committee is made-in-the-Philippines, how did it come about?

The answer to that, from Wikipedia and other sources, is that it was the brainchild of Liberal Party Senator Justiniano Montano, who, having been elected to the Philippine Senate in 1949, formed a clique with some partymates, who then proceeded to attack Philippine President Elpidio Quirino (also a Liberal!). Thus was the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee born: of partymates turning against each other, and in the name of public accountability, investigating presumed irregularities committed by members of the executive branch. As stated earlier, all “in aid of legislation.”

Which brings us to today, with another Liberal Party Senate Blue Ribbon Chair, in open disagreement with his partymate Senate President Franklin Drilon, and for that matter, Department of Justice (DOJ) Secretary Leila de Lima, who is the alter ego of his highest-ranking partymate, the President of the Philippines.

Carrying on the tradition, one supposes.

But that is not what really disturbs. What really disturbs me about that Senate Blue Ribbon Committee investigation is that up to this time, I still have no clue as to which public officers they are calling into account and/or investigating. Napoles certainly does not qualify, nor does BenHur Luy, or any of the other whistleblowers whose non-appearance in the Tuesday hearings discombobulated -- nay, the more accurate term is “enraged” -- the Committee Chair. In the vernacular, the word that comes to mind is “napikon.” What made the whole thing so much worse is that he vented his pique on DOJ’s De Lima, who one must say, reacted in the coolest of fashion. She certainly came out on top in that exchange.

But if it is in the “public interest” to investigate Napoles, it is in the even greater public interest to investigate the lawmakers who are sworn to serve the people, and who seem to have stumbled badly or deliberately exploited those very same people. And what is more, there is even greater basis for doing so, in the Commission on Audit (COA) government-wide performance audit report on the 2007-2009 Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and Various Infrastructure including Local Projects (VILP).

In spite of the fact that the Report does not include the great majority of the appropriated funds (P69 billion out of P101 billion) because they could not be identified with any legislator, it certainly provides tremendously detailed information including the names of the legislators, the implementing agencies (national government agencies, local government units, government controlled corporations) as well as the NGOs. More than enough information, in fact, that could be the basis of an honest-to-goodness investigation in aid of legislation on where the system of checks and balances failed.

A concrete example of what the Blue Ribbon Committee should have found worth investigating was why the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) could not provide the documents like the written communications from legislators identifying their projects (or for that matter, from the Senate Finance Committee giving its imprimatur on these projects, which is the SOP). Another would be to pick one government implementing agency of each type: national, local government, and government corporation and question them on why procedures and requirements were so cavalierly disregarded. All the information is readily available in the COA Report.

Barring that, at the very least, whistleblower Benhur Luy should have been asked -- when he testified that he had called up the offices of senators as well as the DBM to “follow-up” signatures for the required Memoranda of Agreement, etc. -- who it was that he was talking to in the DBM; who it was he was talking to in the Senators’ offices. After all, how can you investigate accountability of public officers if you don’t even want to know who the public officers are in the first place?

Or alternatively, why was the Blue Ribbon Committee being so protective of these officials, even as they bandied around the name of Napoles and what she allegedly said to them or ordered them to do, with total abandon? Why the difference in treatment?

Is it possible that the Blue Ribbon Committee interpreted the term “public officers” in its title to mean only officers of the executive branch? If that were the case, and the Blue Ribbon Committee thought that investigating the Senators mentioned in the COA Report was beyond their jurisdiction, then the next question becomes: under which Senate Committee’s jurisdiction do the actions/omissions of the Senate members come?

And therein lies another tale. The Senate also has an Ethics and Privileges Committee (the US Senate has one too), whose jurisdiction, according to the Senate web site, includes “All matters relating to the conduct, rights, privileges, safety, dignity, integrity and reputation of the Senate and its members.”

Guess what, Reader? You will find that out of the 39 permanent committees, one has 19 members (National Defense and Security), two have 17 members (Blue Ribbon, Finance) and most have at least nine members. But the Ethics Committee has only seven members (together with such committees as Science and Technology and Peace, Unification and Reconciliation). But at least the latter have a Chair. The Ethics Committee has no Chair.

So what does that say about how important ethics is to our Senators?