Puno appointment to UN won't be recalled, but...
() - February 3, 2000 - 12:00am

Former Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno will still be nominated as ambassador to the United Nations, President Estrada said yesterday.

However, Puno must first be cleared of graft charges by the Sandiganbayan before he can assume the position, the President said.

On the other hand, two members of the Commission on Appointments (CA), which will evaluate and eventually approve or reject Puno's new designation, said his nomination should be withdrawn.

Senators Aquilino Pimentel and Francisco Tatad both said that Puno's appointment should be recalled because of his indictment by the Ombudsman for graft in connection with the scrapping of a P200-million Motorola contract with the national police.

Another lawmaker, Isabela Rep. Heherson Alvarez, urged Mr. Estrada to simply defer the nomination of Puno as permanent Philippine representative to the UN.

In his radio program Itawag Mo Kay Erap" yesterday, the President pointed out that the charges against Puno at this stage are "still a matter of newspaper reports."

But Mr. Estrada said the CA will have the final say on Puno's appointment.

The President told reporters Puno is presumed innocent until proven guilty by a competent court--in this case, the Sandiganbayan.

Pimentel, however, said yesterday that unless Puno's nomination is withdrawn, "the Estrada administration and the country (would be put) in a bad light before the eyes of the world."

Tatad, on the other hand, said Puno's voluntary withdrawal would relieve the President of an unfair and unnecessary burden.

"Of course, the President can revoke his (Puno's) nomination. But Puno would be making it easier for the President and the Commission if he simply, voluntarily withdraws," said Tatad, also chairman of the Senate committee on foreign relations.

Alvarez, for his part, said the graft charges filed by the Ombudsman against Puno over the aborted radio communications equipment deal may sway CA members to "vote with prejudice" and reject his nomination as ambassador.

"It is not fair for Secretary Puno to be subjected to confirmation while the charges against him are pending," he said. "His qualifications could be cast aside under these circumstances."

He said Puno would be ostracized at the UN if the CA confirms his appointment while the Sandiganbayan has not yet cleared him.

"The Philippines could be judged on the basis of that representation," he said. "The Executive is appointing Puno not just to any other government post, but as a top Philippine representative before the community of nations."

Masbate Rep. Emilio Espinosa Jr., the CA majority leader, however argued that the bicameral body had already heard the Motorola case when it considered Puno's appointment as DILG head.

"There were many charges aired against Puno, among them the Motorola case, but we confirmed Puno just the same. The CA should not be influenced by extraneous factors. The Ombudsman case need not influence any decision by the CA," the veteran lawmaker said.

Senate President Blas Ople, the CA's ex officio chairman, said there is no legal basis to bar Puno's assumption of office at the UN after the expiration of the term of Ambassador Felipe Mabilangan.

"However, in view of the charges filed against Puno, I would advise him not to do so until he has been confirmed by the CA," he said, adding Mabilangan should remain at his post in a holdover capacity until his successor shall have been qualified and confirmed.

Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon Jr., who has given Mabilangan a 60-day grace period while waiting out developments on the case, admitted that the graft charges may stall Puno's appointment.

He also said the UN post "is just too important" to remain vacant in case Puno is not confirmed.

In another development, the CA suspended all caucuses and hearings yesterday after Pimentel questioned before the Supreme Court the legality of its composition.

Pimentel said the absence of party-list representatives in the CA is a violation of the Constitution.

Ople, meanwhile, said suspension was the most prudent action to take, considering the circumstances.

He said he has endorsed Pimentel's questions to Speaker Manuel Villar because the issue involves the House more than the Senate.

The suspension meant a delay in the confirmation of four ambassadors-designate, which was in the agenda of the aborted plenary session.

The four are Ambassadors Josue Villa to China, Joselin Nazareno to Pakistan, Samuel Ramel to the United Nations in Geneva, and Wenceslao Quirolgico to Cuba.

Also delayed was the oath-taking of three new CA members from the House. They are Reps. Alvarez, Joaquin Chipeco Jr. of Laguna, and Gerardo Espina of Biliran.

Ople said even an adverse ruling by the Supreme Court on the case would not affect the status of those whom the CA had previously confirmed.

"A preliminary finding showed there are only 14 party list representatives, too small to constitute one CA seat," he said.

He explained that in the House, one seat represents 20 members.---

ALVAREZ AMBASSADOR FELIPE MABILANGAN AMBASSADORS JOSUE VILLA MOTOROLA MR. ESTRADA PRESIDENT PUNO SANDIGANBAYAN SUPREME COURT UNITED NATIONS
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