For the sake of the Republic, Governor Marcos should testify

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Marlen V. Ronquillo

IN the case of the House leadership against Ilocos NorteGov. Imee Marcos, the optics totally skew the public opinion to the side of Marcos. She is poised and calm, even while ignoring a House subpoena. The House leaders, Speaker Alvarez and his sidekick, House Majority Leader Rudy Fariñas, look like villains from the days of the silent movies.

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When the public gets glimpses of the public behavior of both Mr, Alvarez and Mr. Fariñas, the judgment is a KO for Ms Marcos. Those bullies harassing a well-loved governor! The gall!

Politics is often a popularity contest. Between a Marcos and the House leadership bannered by two arrivistes, the former is more credible and merely exercising her right as governor. Is it not her duty to govern well? And what are excise tax proceeds for if not for acquiring things that would benefit the province and Ms Marcos’s constituents? That Mr. Fariñas is a challenger to the Marcoses’ dominance ofIlocos Norte politics is another factor that colors the House inquiry.

The fact that the two House leaders have not been known to be champions of women make them even more villainous in the public’s perception.

But in everything, there is a rub. The public perception of bullies and victims does not answer a fundamental question in the whole Imee-House kerfuffle. Which of the two parties is standing on solid legal ground?

The surprising answer, the unalloyed and unvarnished answer is this – the House leadership. Unless, of course, Ms Marcos makes good her promise to appear before the good government committee and argue that she used the P66.4-million collection from the tobacco excise tax with prudence and in accordance with the law. Right now, the negative perception of the House leadership bent on hauling Imee to the House to testify does not mean she is in the clear. No, not if you read the documentary evidence in the House probe. There are many unanswered questions on the legality of the vehicle purchases made with the P66.4 million funds.

For a brief backgrounder, RA 7171, like similar laws whose intent is to benefit the tobacco farmers, specifies that the LGUs’ share of the tobacco excise tax can only be used for things that would directly benefit the farmers and this is not an ever-expanding list. The key words that guide the use and disbursement of the funds are these :

. Agro-industrial projects for tobacco farmers
. Infrastructure projects for tobacco farmers
. Cooperative projects for farmers
. Livelihood projects for farmers

As a farmer and a member of a peasant group, I am quite familiar with the workings of dedicated funds for the farmers and sub-sectors of the agriculture industry. They are, ideally, considered to be sacrosanct and inviolable.

This is on firm legal ground: Vehicle purchases, even if the vehicles were requested by the tobacco farmers themselves, are not part of the spending menu of the tobacco excise tax fundsand those vehicle purchases by the Ilocos Norte provincial government are clearly in violation of the specific provisions of RA 7171.

Even the best of intentions, even if such purchases were requested by the tobacco farmers themselves, do not justify the diversion of the dedicated tobacco funds to vehicle purchases. Mini-cabs, mini-trucks and used buses definitely cannot be acquired using dedicated funds which have to be used, according to the law, for items that would directly support tobacco farmers.

At this point, even the bully tactics of Alvarez/Fariñas et al, are barely consequential to the House inquiry. Governor Marcos is in a legal wringer, this is the hard fact. And in her House testimony, she should present compelling evidence why she should not be criminally charged over the funds misuse.

Why not farm tractors? Why not modern drying and sorting facilities? Why not modern silos? All of these can be placed under the operations and management of a farming coop. The fact that the Philippine tobacco industry is in urgent need of modernization and is one of the most backward in the world effectively rules out the purchase of secondhand buses from the tobacco excise fund.

Then, we go to the broader legal point. For the sake of the Republic, Ms Marcos should appear before the Pimentel committee and testify.

Congress, one of the three co-equal branches of government, has subpoena powers. In the course of a legislative inquiry, the principals in that inquiry can be summoned to either the Senate or the House to testify. Government officials so summoned, ideally, should rush to either of the two chambers after getting a subpoena in deference to the powers and prerogatives of a co-equal branch of government.

The House and the Senate, this is a fact, have historically tended to abuse that power. But the law is the law. Under the law, they have such powers.

The hardline of stand of Ms Marcos about not appearing to answer questions chips away at the stability of our still-wobbly democratic institutions. According to fresh reports, she has retreated from that hardline stand and she will now testify. Good for her and good for the Republic.

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