The Long View: Should thuggery trump secrecy?

Should thuggery trump secrecy?
By Manuel L. Quezon III

“…this is the Senate, not the mafia series the Sopranos.”

MANILA, Philippines - When the House of Commons is summoned to listen to the Queen’s version of the State of the Nation Address, the doors are symbolically slammed in the face of the official tasked with making the summons. He has to tap the doors three times with his staff, is asked who he is, identifies himself, and only then are the doors opened and the MPs file out to go to the House of Lords to listen to the sovereign.

This curious tradition was born of a historic event: on Jan. 4, 1642, King Charles I, having heard that Parliament intended to impeach his queen, entered the House of Commons with his armed guards. He wanted to arrest five MPs as the ringleaders in the attempt to impeach the Queen for treason. The King was reduced to mumbling, “I see the birds have flown.”

By affinity, our Congress is an heir to the experiences of older legislatures, and the story of Charles I has come to represent an ever-present threat that executive departments pose to legislative departments the world over.

Both the House and Senate have a decorative wooden stick, called the Mace, which is prominently displayed beside the rostrum whenever each chamber is in session. Its origins lie in the medieval weapon of the same name, and represents the exclusive authority of each chamber to secure and police their own members and their respective premises. Countries that govern themselves according to the principle of the separation of powers, have always been fiercely opposed to intrusion by the executive into the workings of the legislature.

Yesterday, this paper headlined an account that just as Romulo Neri was finally going to reveal, in secret session, what he wasn’t prepared to say in public, Sen. Joker Arroyo intervened, and made a motion that essentially provided an opening for Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya to enter the picture. At which point, Neri appeared so ill, senators say they decided to call the whole thing off.

Senator Arroyo has angrily denied that he made a motion to bring in Andaya at the point that Neri seemed poised to spill the beans. It seems unlikely to me that Arroyo would do something so crude. When the committees decided to hold an executive session, only the senators, Neri, his lawyer (most definitely not Andaya), and a Blue Ribbon committee lawyer were authorized to attend. In other words Arroyo and the whole world knew that Neri was entitled, and expected, to bring his counsel with him in to the executive session’ and that a Cabinet member is prohibited from acting as someone’s counsel.

So then how could it be, that the Inquirer’s sources all seem to agree that an executive session limited to a few people, meant to afford Neri the chance to speak freely without fear of intimidation, ended up with a Cabinet member other than Neri not only being there, but who is then alleged to have literally nudged Neri, who then clammed up?

The House and Senate jealously guard access to their session floors, but make exceptions, out of courtesy, to former colleagues, such as Cabinet members who were once congressmen or senators. Hospitality takes many forms and I can only speculate that if Andaya was there, it could have been possible that Andaya was allowed to be present in the executive session, not at some point, but from the very start’as a courtesy. Extended by whom? Only a senator would be so bold. And yet surely, other senators would have objected on the basis of the attendance being highly restricted. The executive session was meant to help Neri, who’d endured hours of tremendous pressure.

Recall that around 12:48 p.m. that day, there was news that Neri was whisked away to the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office, on the 4th floor of the Senate. If my recollection of the brief mention of this development is correct, Neri seemed surprised by this as his actual intention had either been to answer the call of nature or have lunch. Reasonable minds must consider that the executive session became the last, but wasn’t the first, attempt by the Palace to browbeat Neri into keeping silent. The question now becomes, were senators complicit in the intimidation of a witness by omission or commission?

What was bad enough was the possibility of having Andaya in the room, whether from the start or by barging in. If true, it would have served no other purpose either way but to intimidate Neri. Think of it. I don’t even mean to suggest that at any point, Andaya positioned himself across from, or beside, Neri, or even grabbed him by the shoulders or shook him, or poked him, or shouted instructions at him to cease and desist from saying anything: this is the Senate, not the mafia series the Sopranos.

Such scenarios are impossible because surely the senators present, regardless of party affiliations, would have demanded Andaya’s immediate expulsion from the premises. Unless we speculate further that the Senate premises actually had members of the PSG, fully armed, lurking in the vicinity. But no self-respecting legislature anywhere in the world would keep silent, vow or no vow, if armed guards other than those under its own sergeant-at-arms, presented a menace to a witness.

No, Andaya’s presence alone in the executive session, even if he did nothing at all and didn’t nudge Neri, defeated the whole purpose of the executive session. If a Cabinet member, unauthorized to attend, without legal personality to serve as counsel, was either in the meeting from the start or barged in sometime in the middle, then surely the veil of secrecy was lifted. In the face of such an invasion, the Senate, surely, cannot maintain the fiction of a vow of secrecy that was broken from the start.

Or, is the Senate the victim of a charade? Are senators being blamed for being gutless in the face of an intrusion that never took place, and made the bad guys in what might actually be a Punch and Judy act between Neri and Andaya?

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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