by Joel Roja/Asianjournal.com
MANILA – The Supreme Court (SC) on Monday stopped the Senate from implementing its arrest order against Commission on Higher Education (CHED) chairman Romulo Neri in connection with his failure to appear during its investigation on the alleged anomalies surrounding the US$329 million broadband deal between the government and China’s ZTE Corporation.
In an en banc resolution issued Tuesday, the Court issued a status quo ante in favor of Neri, which in effect compels the Senate to maintain the situation prior to the issuance of the arrest order on January 30.
“Now, therefore, effective immediately and continuing until further orders from this Court, you, respondents Senate Committees on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations (Blue Ribbon), Trade and Commerce, and National Defense and Security, your agents, representatives, or persons acting in your place or stead, are hereby enjoined from implementing your order of January 30, 2008,” the SC said in a threepage resolution.
Likewise, the Court ordered respondents — Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, Committee on Trade and Commerce and Committee on National Defense and Security – to comment on Neri’s petition within 10 days. The SC also set the case for oral arguments on March 4.
The Senate committees order Neri’s arrest on January 30, 2008 after he failed to heed its subpoena compelling him to appear at their hearings on September 18, 20, October 25 and November 20, 2007 in connection with the ZTE Corporation.
In his supplemental petition for certiorari filed before the SC on February 1, Neri explained that he failed to show up on September 18, 20, and October 25 hearings because he was then out-of-town.
Neri, on the other hand, noted that he testified on September 26, 2007. During his testimony, Neri disclosed that former Commission on Elections (Comelec) Benjamin Abalos offered him P200 million in exchange for the approval of the project by the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA).
Neri was then the secretary of NEDA when the broandband project was approved. He said he begged off from attending the November 20, 2007 hearing upon the order of the President invoking executive privilege.
“The gross arbitrariness of respondents’ order of arrest is patent on its face. This order of arrest elides, and sidesteps, the President’s invocation of executive privilege in behalf of petitioner,” Neri stressed.
In its original petition for certiorari filed on December 7, 2007, Neri maintained that the respondents gravely abused their discretions when they issued on November 22, 2007 a show cause order against him.
The CHED chairman insisted that his invocation of executive privilege is “wellfounded” as he is prohibited by law from disclosing communications made to him in official confidence.
He added that his discussions with the President were candid and meant to explore options in making policy decisions. Neri added that their conversations dwelt on the impact of the bribery scandal involving high government officials on the country’s diplomatic relations and economic and military affairs, and the possible loss of confidence of foreign investors and lenders in the country.
Neri asked the tribunal to rule annulling the arrest order, which he said has another “vice,” such that it punishes for supposed contempt despite that the Rules of respondent Committees have not even been published.
He said that the order for his arrest pre-empted the SC’s action on his original petition for certiorari.
“Quite clearly, respondent committees would lord it over two co-equal branches of government, to wit, the President and the Supreme Court,” he added.
SC spokesman Jose Midas Marquez clarified that the status quo ante order does not cover Philippine Forest Corp. (PFC) chief executive officer Roberto Lozada, who was also ordered to be arrested by the Senate.
Lozada left for Hong Kong two hours before the Senate resumed its inquiry on January 30 into the anomalous broadband deal. Neri reportedly appointed him as technical consultant for the contract.
Lozada was scheduled to testify Wednesday, but sent word that he could not do so because he was on an official.