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Home Opinion Editorial Observe the fine line between legislative inquiry and criminal prosecution

Observe the fine line between legislative inquiry and criminal prosecution

TO dispel public confusion over 1) the big headlines about a “monumental cover-up” by the resigned Philippine National Police (PNP) chief and police officials in the sensational illegal drugs recycling case in Pampanga; and 2) the announced conduct of a review and investigation of the case by the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), we think it is important to recognize the fine line between the congressional power of investigation and oversight, and the executive power of investigating and prosecuting official wrongdoing in the executive departments and agencies.

The Constitution provides: “The Senate or the House of Representatives or any of its respective committees may conduct inquiries in aid of legislation in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure. The rights of persons appearing in or affected by such inquiries shall be respected.”

The full name of the Senate blue ribbon committee is Senate Committee on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations. As such, it is tasked to investigate alleged wrongdoing of government officials and attached executive agencies, including government-owned and -controlled corporations, in aid of legislation. This means that its primary purpose is to develop or propose new laws, or amendments to existing laws.

The committee investigates alleged criminal misconduct by government officials. It can recommend the prosecution of officials; it cannot prosecute them. The Senate has adopted strict rules to prevent the abuse of its investigative power.

The task of prosecuting officials belongs to the executive branch, specifically the Justice department or the Office of the Ombudsman.

In announcing so loudly that there is an alleged “monumental cover-up” in the illegal drugs recycling case in Pampanga, Sen. Richard Gordon appears to be crossing the line from the legislative into the realm of criminal investigation and prosecution.

He should commend this work to where it belongs: the Interior and Justice departments of government and their appropriate enforcement units.

It would be different if the blue ribbon committee were an appointed commission of inquiry, or a special prosecutor’s office. An inquiry commission or a special prosecutor has not only the power to investigate, it also has the power to potentially prosecute a particular case of suspected wrongdoing for which a conflict of interest exists for the usual prosecuting authority. For example, the investigation of an allegation against a sitting president or attorney general is handled by a special prosecutor rather than by an ordinary prosecutor who would otherwise be in the position of investigating his own superior.

The blue ribbon committee and its chairman do not possess this special prosecutorial power. They can publicize the results of their inquiry, and they can recommend the filing of charges; but they cannot prosecute.

Grandstanding and engaging in a trial by publicity, as seems to be happening now in the “ninja cops” case, look to us as counterproductive tactics. They could unwittingly provide a defense to officials who eventually may have to face charges in court.

But what if the DoJ and DILG refuse to investigate or bring charges against those who are principally accountable for criminal wrongdoing? What if there is truly a cover-up?

The remedy then is to take the issue to the entire Senate, seek its full support so that the chamber can consider appropriate measures and employ its full powers to get a fitting response from the executive.

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