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House junks impeach complaint vs Bautista

Andres Bautista and Patricia Bautista

MANILA, Philippines — The House committee on justice yesterday dismissed the impeachment complaint against Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Andres Bautista for insufficiency in form, making the poll chief immune from the process for a year.

“This complaint is dismissed,” Mindoro Oriental Rep. Reynaldo Umali, committee chairman, declared after announcing the 26-2 vote.

Bautista welcomed the dismissal of the case, saying it was proof that the allegations against him were “fabricated and baseless.”

He also described it as “a significant step in clearing my name after the malicious accusations hurled against me.”

However, Bautista is still not discounting the possibility of taking a leave of absence or resigning from the poll body as he is facing charges before the Office of the Ombudsman also because of alleged ill-gotten wealth.

In a press conference at the National Printing Office in Quezon City, Bautista said these are options that are “always available” for him.

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“Everything is being studied and prayed for. I cannot make any categorical answer for now,” Bautista said.

Umali said the dismissal of the case against Bautista was consistent with the decision his panel made last week throwing out the second impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno filed by Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC).

He said his committee agreed in May when it threw out the complaint filed by Rep. Gary Alejano of Magdalo against President Duterte that it would no longer be liberal in treating cases that are defective in form.

“We ruled that that was the last time that we entertained a complaint that was deficient in form and that from then on, we would be very strict on the matter of verification of the allegations against an impeachable officer,” Umali stressed.

Former Negros Oriental representative Jacinto Paras, one of the complainants in the case against Bautista, said he was saddened by his former colleagues’ decision to dismiss the complaint.

“We will see if we can question the decision before the Supreme Court,” he said.

The case was based largely on the allegation of Bautista’s wife, Patricia or Trish, that the Comelec chief had amassed more than P1 billion in illegal assets, which Bautista has denied.

Patricia, who attended yesterday’s hearing, accepted the Umali committee’s decision, but said there are other ways of finding the truth about her accusations against her husband.

“It is what it is, but we will continue. The truth can come out in many different forms in different venues,” she said.

The rule of the House on the sufficiency of form requires a complainant to attest before the chamber’s secretary general that his allegations are “of his personal knowledge or based on authentic documents.” The attestation is legally known as verification.

The verification signed by Paras and his co-complainant, lawyer Ferdinand Topacio, states that their allegations “are true of our own knowledge and belief on the basis of our reading and appreciation of the documents and other records pertinent thereto.”

Topacio did not show up at yesterday’s hearing.

The two complainants subsequently tried to correct their error and comply with the rule on form by submitting a complaint verification.

Rep. Harry Roque of Kabayan, one of three House members who endorsed the impeachment complaint against Bautista, asked the justice committee to accept the corrected document.

Roque and another endorser, Rep. Gwen Garcia of Cebu, argued that the House impeachment rules allow a defective verification to be corrected.

“If we do not accept the substitute document and dismiss the complaint, we will never find out the truth about the allegations that involve the integrity of chairman Bautista,” Roque said.

However, the Umali committee voted 27-2 to reject the corrected verification. Only Roque and Garcia voted to accept it and to declare the complaint sufficient in form.

Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas said the substitute document, like the original, was also defective, since it was not signed before the House secretary general.

“It was also improperly filed because it was addressed to the House of Representatives and not to the committee on justice,” he said.

He said Paras and Topacio clearly lacked personal knowledge of their accusations against Bautista.

“At least four paragraphs in their complaint quoted news reports in The Philippine STAR written by Janvic Mateo,” he added.

Opposition Rep. Edcel Lagman, one of those who supported the dismissal of the case against Bautista, said there is no rule allowing a complainant to amend his verification and his complaint.

He said the attempt of Paras and Topacio to present an amended verification “clearly shows that the original was defective.”

Agusan del Norte Rep. Lawrence Fortun said verification is an important part of an impeachment case.

“Its absence or defect kills the complaint. It’s like an unsigned pleading,” he said. 

With the dismissal of the Bautista case and the VACC petition against Sereno, there is only one complaint pending with the committee on justice – the one filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon against the Chief Justice, which the Umali panel has found sufficient both in form and substance.

The committee has asked Sereno to answer the complaint.

Insufficient

Bautista noted in a press conference that he did not heed calls for him to resign primarily because of his legal expertise and the sign that God had sent him. 

“I would not say that I was very confident that the case will be dismissed. But I had the feeling, when I was reading the complaint, that it was lacking,” he added.

The poll chief claimed that though impeachment proceedings could be political, he also studied “existing laws, precedents and jurisprudence of the Supreme Court on impeachment cases.”

Bautista likewise looked into the recent decisions of the House justice committee on the impeachment complaints filed against President Duterte and Chief Justice Sereno, which were both dismissed.

Aside from this, Bautista said he contemplated and prayed over calls for him to leave the Comelec and the answer he got was to stay put.

“I have read before that God answers our prayers in three ways – yes, not yet or I have better plans for you. When there were calls for my resignation or to go on leave, it seems that the answer I got was number two, not yet,” he added.

Among those who called for Bautista to quit were the six Comelec commissioners.

Bautista revealed that after the dismissal of his case was announced at the House, two commissioners sent him a text message to congratulate him, but he refused to name them.  

Bautista, however, is facing another battle as the ombudsman’s Field Investigation Office (FIO) recently started its fact-finding or evidence gathering on the accusations hurled against him by Patricia.

The investigation will cover Bautista’s alleged misdeclaration in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth.

Lesson

The next batch of complainants who will file an impeachment case before the House of Representatives should learn their lesson from the chamber’s dismissal of the complaint against Bautista due to its defective verification process. 

“The House takes all impeachment complaints seriously. As should everyone. It is an extraordinary remedy under the law,” Parañaque Rep. Gus Tambunting said. 

“It should be a lesson and a clarion call to those who would avail of the remedy. Do your research. And make sure the complaint is grounded on solid facts and legal basis,” the chairman of the House committee on games and amusement added.

But Buhay party-list Rep. Lito Atienza could not hide his displeasure about the voting turnout in the justice committee of Umali.

“In the plenary I will be active. I will make them realize that the (Comelec) chairman has to go,” he told newsmen, citing electoral fraud. 

House Minority Leader Danilo Suarez held off comment, however, until after the Bautista complaint reaches the plenary, but highlighted poll cheating as well, where many opposition candidates got zero votes in numerous polling precincts in the May 2016 polls.   –  With Delon Porcalla

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