Political spat disrupts budget hearing at Senate

Political spat disrupts budget hearing at Senate
National Transmission Commission president Melvin Matibag in a heated confrontation with Sen. Manny Pacquiao during a Senate hearing on the Department of Energy's budget. The two are on opposite sides of a conflict within the administration PDP-Laban party.
Screen grab / Senate of the Philippines YouTube page

MANILA, Philippines — The fallout of a rift within the administration PDP-Laban party on Thursday threatened to derail a Senate panel hearing on the Department of Energy's proposed budget for 2022 on Thursday.

National Transmission Commission president Melvin Matibag was booted out of the hearing by Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, chair of a Senate finance subcommittee, after he claimed that the proceedings had turned "political" in a heated exchange with Sen. Manny Pacquiao. 

Nearly four hours into the hearing, Matibag lashed out after Pacquiao questioned his family's involvement with the Independent Electricity Market Operator of the Philippines, an undercapitalized firm that clinched a critical contract worth P100 million with the DOE last year.

Matibag is secretary-general of the PDP-Laban faction led by Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, who is party president.

"I just need to know, what does IEMOP have, why was it chosen [when] it does not pass the qualification [required] by the [Electric Power Industry Reform Act]?" Pacquiao asked Cusi in Filipino. "And IEMOP, one of its board [members] is the wife of Attorney Matibag who works for you." 

Matibag interjected at this point to say Pacquiao would have understood the "full story" if he had read EPIRA.

"Let's call a spade a spade in this hearing," he said partially in Filipino. "This is all political, Sen. Pacquiao." 

Matibag's outburst offended Gatchalian, who was presiding over the hearing. 

"This is my committee and you have no right [to call] this hearing a political hearing," he told Matibag. "This is a budget hearing, the senators are entitled to ask policy questions." 

"You're out of order. You are no longer recognized," Gatchalian added. He ordered Matibag removed from the virtual meeting room shortly after. 

Pacquiao aired his own frustration after Matibag left, saying his former party-mate was rude and disrespectful. 

What was behind the confrontation? 

After a souring of relations with President Rodrigo Duterte, Pacquiao was replaced as party president in a national assembly that he said was unauthorized. His position was declared vacant and Cusi was elected in his place. Duterte remained party chairman. 

The retired boxing icon and absentee senator, however, is the chosen standard-bearer of another PDP-Laban faction with Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, son of the party's founder.

Pacquiao filed his presidential candidacy under the Progressive Movement for the Devolution of Initiatives or PROMDI, a Cebu-based party. He has said though that he is not giving up the fight to be recognized as the legitimate PDP-Laban party by the country's poll body. 

The two factions fell out earlier this year over who the party's standard-bearer would be. Asked to explain the rift, Sen. Pimentel said he suspected that the Cusi-led wing intended to field the president's daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, who is from another party, as its presidential bet. 

Mayor Duterte-Carpio has said she is not runnning for president but eyes are on a November 15 deadline for substitutions. The Cusi faction's candidate is Sen. Roland "Bato" Dela Rosa, who is running alongside Sen. Christopher "Bong" Go.

Go was nominated as PDP-Laban's presidential candidate but he filed his candidacy for vice president, the position President Duterte was expected to run for.

Matibag sorry for outburst but accuses Pacquiao of using Senate for politics 

"I have to apologize for the interaction," Cusi said, addressing Gatchalian. "If you were offended by Attorney Matibag, I have to make that apology considering he comes from the DOE." 

Matibag, in a statement to reporters Thursday evening, also issued an apology for his outburst but maintained that he believed Pacquiao was "exploiting the Senate [hearing] to retaliate against me for his ouster in PDP-LABAN."  

"I am willing to face any charges that Senator Manny Pacquiao may have against me but in a legal forum where I am allowed to defend myself and not be made a punching bag and be subjected to political persecution by him [or by] his political allies in the Senate," he said.

In June, Pacquiao took the Senate floor to deliver a privilege speech where he criticized Cusi for politicking amid the rotational blackouts in Luzon.  — Bella Perez-Rubio 

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