By Raïssa Robles
The suicide of retired General Angelo Reyes after being accused of receiving huge payoffs by a former military budget officer during a Senate probe, has stirred public debate on whether lawmakers’ investigative powers should be snipped.
My immediate response, based on my personal experience covering the Senate and politics in general, is – NO.
And I would add, I’ve heard worse accusations thrown by and at senators. Here’s why.
Only one other government official, who was subjected to a similar Senate grilling, took his own life afterward. I’m referring to Jaime Ongpin, the finance minister of President Corazon Aquino. He was not accused of ill-gotten wealth. He received a public lashing from the senators for insisting the Philippines should honor even the most onerous foreign debts inherited from the Marcos regime and it must swallow the bitter pill prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But that was not the only reason he killed himself although it contributed to his depression.
True, some senators can be downright nasty. But that is a matter of personality and personal motives. To restrict the powers of the entire Senate in order to curb the uncouth behavior of some senators would be missing the point of the institution’s very existence. We elect senators partly to be the nation’s gate keepers against state corruption.
How each one fulfills that function is a matter of individual style. Some senators are elected mainly for this reason.
This is why the acerbic Senator Miriam Santiago has been re-elected again and again. Santiago called Reyes and his lawyer a “one-celled amoeba” for demanding senators stop questioning him about ill-gotten wealth.
Did the Senate subject Angelo Reyes to a trial by publicity?
Before I go into that, let me share with you what I have discovered about Senate graft investigations. Every investigation is a stage and – in many cases – staged to the extent that some lawmakers make elaborate preparations for their expose. In other words they do their homework.
You probably saw last Monday that Senator Jinggoy Estrada came prepared with props that included blown-up photos of Gen. Jacinto Ligot’s alleged houses in California, as well as the presence of two “resource persons” – sacked ex-military budget officer Lt. Col. George Rabusa and his ex-assistant Air Force Colonel Antonio Lim.
During Sen. Jinggoy’s cross-examination of Ligot, I was greatly intrigued to see ex-Senate President Ernesto Maceda seated behind Estrada. Maceda had earlier carved a reputation for being “Mr. Expose”. I felt he was there to cheer Sen. Jinggoy on or perhaps give him legal advice. Maceda’s presence should have alerted me that something big was about to go down that Monday.
Sen. Jinggoy questioned Ligot the way a cat plays with a trapped mouse. The only thing that marred Sen. Jinggoy’s performance, I thought, was the tiny smile that at times curled his lips upward. It seemed to say – Gotcha there.
Maybe it was this smile that infuriated those who were being implicated during the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee hearings.
Reyes’ fatal mistake
It isn’t true that Reyes was barred from speaking out at the Senate. In fact Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile waived Senate rules for him to say his piece. That was when Reyes made his fatal mistake when he opened his mouth to deny that Rabusa had personally handed him a pabaon (goodbye gift) of 50 million pesos.
Reyes thundered in his usual command voice:
Can I ask Colonel Rabusa, if during the time I was chief of staff, did I become greedy? Did I ask him for anything? Did I demand money from him, officially or unofficially?
This gave Sen. Jinggoy – the man whose father Reyes betrayed – the opening to say –
This is not an issue of greed. The issue is if you collected money, if you were corrupt as chief of the Armed Forces. Who cares if you were generous?
Reyes’ use of the word “greedy” was truly unfortunate.
What damned Reyes further in the eyes of the public was his “Was I greedy?” speech.
The word “greedy” echoes deep within the Filipino psyche. It also reminds Filipinos of an unresolved money scandal where a cabinet secretary, Romulo Neri, instructed a lower functionary named Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada to tell then poll chairman Benjamin Abalos and his associates to “moderate their greed” when allegedly demanding their commission from a telecom broadband contract with ZTE Corporation of China.
The Senate hearing was the very first time Sen. Jinggoy got to publicly slap Reyes on the face.
But that was not the end of Reyes’ humiliation that day
That day, a lowly ex-junior officer was able to give his former superior a shockingly public dressing down. This was the first time former Lieutenant Senior Grade Antonio Trillanes IV had confronted one of the men who had clapped him in detention for seven years in an effort to break him. The Senate hearing brought home to Reyes how much their roles had dramatically reversed.
Beneath the stare of the newbie senator Trillanes, General Reyes was compelled to humiliate himself by being made to answer whether he had accepted a huge cash gift from Rabusa. And his reply all the more damned him:
I cannot remember.
In local military culture, ranks are observed even beyond active service. Thus, an ex-general continues to command the respect and obedience of an ex-lieutenant. But Trillanes defied this unwritten etiquette.
Trillanes was making his public debut as a legislator. He was bent on proving himself. Socially and politically, Trillanes’ rank was now higher than Reyes. It is in this context that we can perhaps understand Trillanes’ ranting when he told his former superior:
If you are so concerned about your name, you should have fixed yourself while you were in office! This is the time of reckoning. You better find very good lawyers….You have no reputation to protect!
The sting would have been less if that statement had come from Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. But delivered by Trillanes, the poison was fresh. It brought home not only to Reyes but to all active and retired generals that the man they had wanted to keep shackled was now free and in power.
If Trillanes does not destroy himself within the next three years, he will become a strong contender for the presidency in 2016.
General Reyes made a second mistake
Instead of thinking through a counter-offensive, Reyes lashed back at Trillanes by challenging him to a public verbal duel:
As a fellow officer and gentleman, I am now challenging Senator Trillanes to waive his parliamentary immunity to suits and then to repeat the same accusations he had made against my person, name and integrity…to fight in a level playing field instead of confederating with a lynch-mob to subject me and my family to a trial by publicity.
It was a pretty weird statement to come from someone who had never fought Trillanes on a level playing field.
But let’s go back to the question – did the Senate subject Reyes to a trial by publicity?
Fellow generals would say YES because no top-ranking general was ever publicly scolded or confronted with the question of illegally amassed wealth. Questioning a general about ill-gotten wealth is tantamount to subjecting him to a trial by publicity.
What just happened to Reyes and his fellow generals was unprecedented.
NEVER, since 1986, have so many generals been questioned about their alleged misdeeds. Following the Edsa People Power of 1986, the generals, except for General Fabian Ver, were never investigated or prosecuted for ill-gotten wealth or human rights abuses.
And if you notice, generals continue to be exempt from publicly disclosing their yearly statement of assets and liabilities.
I don’t know why they are. Surely, they’re not afraid of being kidnapped for ransom.