It seems extremely odd that a senator, while under investigation for serious wrongdoing, is able to continue working as a member of Congress by participating in a hearing that is linked to those investigations. Ethical standards would normally require the senator’s suspension while the investigations are in progress. Customarily, under such circumstances a legislator would recuse himself from the proceedings. This is in no way to suggest guilt but to remove any conflicts of interest which could place the hearing in a bad light.
But this is not the case right now in the Philippines, as Senator Leila De Lima – being probed by the Department of Justice (DOJ), which she used to head, for allegedly receiving money earned from the illegal drugs trade in New Bilibid Prison (NBP) – remains a member of the Senate hearing into extrajudicial killings; a hearing that is entwined with the current war on illegal drugs. At a separate hearing in the House of Representatives, a number of the witnesses are inmates at NBP and parts of their testimony mention De Lima by name and cite her participation in the prison’s narcotics business which is what that hearing is looking into.
Neither of the proceedings, however, is a trial; they are fact-finding processes. Committee member are not there to defend or prosecute; they are there to discover. The problem is that the two hearings have become merged in people’s minds; and De Lima – rightly or wrongly – is seen as the common factor.
The Senate hearing under De Lima’s chairing morphed into a theatre of attack against the president who had cited her as a beneficiary of the illegal drugs trade in NBP. She seemed to be gambling that if she could get the president impeached for involvement in the extrajudicial killings, her problems with regards to the House hearing would miraculously fade away. Her grandstanding in the Senate also hasn’t helped her.
And it’s not as if the Senate chamber is her only stage. She has many supporters in the Philippine media and the international media who are only too keen to report on The World According to De Lima. Let’s face it, she’s good copy. From her karaoke appearances at NBP to her salacious outbursts, De Lima is the consummate entertainer.
Her latest “revelation” that President Rodrigo Duterte has sexual fantasies about her, for example, was an international hit. No one cares that she had no factual basis for making such an assertion; this is good supermarket tabloid fodder. De Lima is a celebrity running her own ‘reality’ show from her mouth and her cell phone and, like her or loath her, she’ll always keep her audiences enthralled. But she’s supposed to be in Congress as a lawmaker, not as the winner of Bilibid’s Got Talent.
And so whether all this is appropriate for a member of the Philippine Senate is another matter entirely; certainly it does little to instill confidence in this supposedly august body. Under investigation are some serious issues which go to the heart of the rule of law. This shouldn’t be material for a daily soap opera of ever-mounting absurdities, or be used and abused to score political points to the detriment of serious enquiry and reduce the highest order of the legislative branch to a slap-stick routine in a raucous burlesque show.
So how can her remaining on that Senate committee further the interests of discovery? Plainly, it can’t. It is obvious to anyone watching that De Lima has no objectivity in this matter – one reason, in fact, for her removal from the chair of the committee hearings last week. But she still sits as a member of that committee and, given her propensity for long-winded orations, heavily laced with innuendo, and the guiding of witnesses, she remains a liability. The fact is, the same arguments that caused 16 of the 22 senators to vote for her removal from the chair – two abstained and four voted to keep her – equally apply to her continued committee membership.
In other words, as long as she is permitted to participate in those hearings – and you can guarantee her tone and manner of conduct will not have been dampened – the Senate’s reputation remains threatened. She has shown that she is incapable of impartiality, surely the minimum requirement for membership. She has also shown that she either has no regard for Senate protocol, or she never bothered to read up on it.
But De Lima also needs to decide whether she’s a public servant or a public entertainer; if it’s the latter, she also needs to get in character and stay in it. One minute she’s giving the portrayal of a political dominatrix, the next she’s the sacrificial lamb. Which is she vamp or victim? Surely, not even she can be both.
What seems to have happened is that De Lima failed to adjust to her new role as one of 26 senators where she is just a member of the cast – a far cry from the starring role she had at the Justice Department where she was given licence to change the script if she felt like it. For a prima donna this is likely to be a difficult adjustment. Certainly, that seems to have been the case here.