Abolish the Yellow (aka Blue) Ribbon Committee

As I argued in my column Friday, the so-called Blue Ribbon Committee, whose official name is the Senate Committee on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations, is a total misnomer. Especially under this Administration, its members haven’t been nonpartisan nor experts in what they are investigating, which the term “Blue Ribbon” means.

Rather, it has been a persecution and harassment weapon of President Aquino: We should, instead, name it the “Yellow Ribbon Committee,” after his insignia.

Maybe we should thank Aquino and his Liberal Party inner circle for abusing the authority of the Blue Ribbon Committee so much that it has become clearer how utterly flawed the very notion of such a committee is.

We are the only legislature in the world to have a “Blue Ribbon Committee” or a congressional body with the authority to investigate any alleged wrongdoing by a public official.

This is because of an important reason that is at the heart of the idea of republican democracy: It violates the separation of powers of the three branches of government.

No matter what the checks on a “Blue Ribbon Committee” are — in our case that its investigation should be “in aid of legislation” – such an entity appropriates for itself the powers of the two other branches of government, the executive branch whose duty is to investigate alleged crimes and the judiciary, which determines if an accused did commit a crime.

Blue-Ribbon20141027
“Blue Ribbon Committees” then and now. Above, the “witchhunting” McCarthyist hearings in the US Senate in the 1950s; below, the Binay investigations.

 

In more concrete terms, the Blue Ribbon Committee quite obviously expropriates the power of the Ombudsman, a constitutional body, and the Sandiganbayan, a court of the judicial branch of government.

Civilization has developed through centuries a gargantuan body of procedures and regulations governing how an alleged crime is investigated and proven, to avoid humanity’s vulnerability to emotions, especially vengeance and mob rule. This is called our system of laws and regulations that include, for instance, such things as Rules of Court, rules of evidence, court procedures. There is such a thing as jurisprudence, so every court decision is consistent with the laws as these have been applied in the past.

Our system even limits those who can participate in judicial proceedings to a particular professional – required to have a certain post-collegiate education and to pass a particular exam called the bar – we call the “lawyer.” There is a system of appeal, which stops thought at the Supreme Court.

In the blue, aka yellow, ribbon committee’s hearings, any jerk, as long as he is a senator, can even be at the forefront of such investigations, such as the former mutineer Antonio Trillanes 3rd, who has shown his utter ignorance of the law, or even Alan Cayetano, who should be sent back to law school for his claim that a TV interview with an alleged landowner is more important that the registered owner.

There is no such body of knowledge governing investigations by a committee of the legislative branch. Hence, here you see a Cayetano bullying a witness or a Trillanes putting words in witnesses’ mouths. This former mutineer even so crassly threatens “resource persons,” for example, when he barked at the contractors of he Makati Building that he would ask the DPWH to blacklist it from any public contracts.

Things such as PowerPoint presentations annotated with biased words like “overprice” and videos of “Hacienda Binay” are presented in the “Court” without giving the accused the right – as he would have in a real court – to even block such presentations if these are not shown to him beforehand (or his lawyer) so he could question first its authenticity.

I cannot understand why we are treated as fools whenever the Yellow Ribbon undertakes an investigation it claims is in “aid of legislation.” No one really believes that, and no Yellow Ribbon investigation has so far resulted in any bill. Why do we, as a nation, imbibe such a lie concocted by the Senate?

The McCarthyist Era
The US Congress had its own episode of mob frenzy when it succumbed to such investigating committees, a blue-ribbon kind of committee in the 1950s: the House Committee on Un-American Activities and its Senate counterpart, Permanent Committee on Investigations, led by the infamous head Joseph McCarthy.

These undertook witch-hunts against suspected Nazi and communist sympathizers that even led to suicides – just like former Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes did – of several people being investigated. The two committees investigated even Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and 300 other artists.

After that horrific episode, which historians have labeled as the irrational McCarthyist era, the US Congress had made it a point to make such investigative bodies ad hoc, or temporary ones consisting of people with indisputable integrity, expertise in the field, and nonpartisan.

Our Supreme Court, relying on decisions by its US counterpart during the McCarthyist era in general, has in fact, generally frowned on investigations by the “Blue Ribbon Committee.”

It is quite interesting that the first Supreme Court ruling against the Blue Ribbon Committee was made in favor of President Aquino’s uncle, Manuel Lopa, in 1991. In its decision, the Court barred certain witnesses from being compelled by the Committee headed by Senator Wigberto Tanada to testify in its investigations on allegations that Lopa, right after Marcos’ fall, had illegally acquired 36 firms of the dictator’s brother-in-law, Benjamin Romualdez.

The allegations were made by then Senator Juan Ponce Enrile who, like Trillanes in the case of Binay, probably merely wanted to undertake a demolition job, in his case against President Cory, rather than establishing the truth.

The Court exposed the fact that the committee wasn’t really undertaking the hearings “in aid of legislation” but was trying to investigate an alleged crime – which it did not have the authority to do so under the Constitution.

Supreme Court ruling
The Court (in G.R. No. 89914) invoked a US Supreme Court ruling against the US House’s Committee on Un-American Activities:

“The power of Congress to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process. That power is broad… But broad as is this power of inquiry, it is not unlimited. There is no general authority to expose the private affairs of individuals without justification in terms of the functions of Congress… Nor is the Congress a law enforcement or trial agency. These are functions of the executive and judicial departments of government. No inquiry is an end in itself; it must be related to and in furtherance of a legitimate task of Congress. Investigations conducted solely for the personal aggrandizement of the investigators or to “punish” those investigated are indefensible.” (Emphasis supplied)

But of course, the Yellow Ribbon investigation is not really a probe into an alleged crime, nor to gather data for drafting a bill. It is totally a demolition job via the media, to throw dirt on the front-runner in the 2016 elections.

Based on the decision of that Lopa case, Binay is on solid legal footing to refuse to participate in the Yellow Ribbon hearing. The Court noted that the allegations against Lopa being investigated by the Committee were the same subject of a case already filed in the Sandiganbayan.

The Court therefore ruled:

“In fine, for the respondent Committee to probe and inquire into the same justiciable controversy already before the Sandiganbayan, would be an encroachment into the exclusive domain of judicial jurisdiction that had much earlier set in. In Baremblatt vs United States, 21 it was held that:

‘Broad as it is, the power is not, however, without limitations. Since Congress may only investigate into those areas in which it may potentially legislate or appropriate, it cannot inquire into matters that are within the exclusive province of one of the other branches of the government. Lacking the judicial power given to the Judiciary, it cannot inquire into matters that are exclusively the concern of the Judiciary.’”

The same people who were the Yellow Ribbon Committee’s witnesses already had filed a case against Binay, involving the same allegations with the Ombudsman July 22. What the Yellow Ribbon Committee is investigating has become, as the Constitution provides, the province of the Ombudsman, and later the Sandiganbayan.

But beyond these legal technicalities is the basic question: Why do we allow the Senate’s platform to be used for a demolition job, and we, the citizens, are even paying for it, Aquino’s propaganda weapon?