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Senators Speaks: A look back on Senate probes in 2023
Senators Speaks: A look back on Senate probes in 2023
Nation
Senators Speaks: A look back on Senate probes in 2023
by Mary Antalan27 December 2023
Photo Courtesy: Senate of the Philippines

Several investigations inside the Philippine Senate have left a remarkable impression on the public in 2023.

Particular personalities, organizations, companies, and even cults have been hotly seated by senators to tackle some of the issues that seek clarity and justice.

Degamo Assassination

One of the hot topics early this year was the suspension of Negros Oriental Representative Arnolfo “Arnie” Teves Jr. due to his involvement in the killing of Negros Oriental Governor Roel Degamo and nine others, with 17 more injured.

Citing evidence from the March 4, 2023, crime, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin 'Boying' Remulla said Teves appeared to be the mastermind of the killing, but Teves dismissed this as “fake news.”

Several suspects who were allegedly involved in the killing retracted their testimonies, claiming that Teves was the one who directed the killing. They recanted that they were only forced by authorities to make a confession and tag the former Congressman; however, this was belied by Remulla.

According to Remulla, Marvin Miranda, the former aide of suspended Congressman Teves, was the "director" behind the recantation of the suspects in the assassination of Degamo.

The Senate Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs, under Senator Ronald "Bato" Dela Rosa, reopened the probe against Teves following Senator Alan Peter Cayetano's demonstration to resume the investigation with the participation of the Committee on Justice and Human Rights.

On April 4, the Senate panel invited Teves to attend the hearing in the Senate, but Teves requested to attend virtually. The Senate, however, made a unanimous decision not to allow the former governor to attend virtually.

Murder, frustrated murder, and attempted murder charges have been filed by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) against the former congressman, who is now still at large.

Fearing for his safety, he has refused to return home to the Philippines.

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In an attempt to seek asylum, Teves applied to Timor-Leste in May, but his application was rejected.

On September 5, the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 51 issued an e-warrant of arrest against Teves after the court found "probable cause" against him.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) has sought the help of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) to locate Teves and serve a warrant of arrest against him.

Jemboy Baltazar slay

Last August 16, another senate probe happened regarding an incident involving six policemen from the Navotas City Police Station who mistakenly killed an innocent 17-year-old Jemboy Baltazar during a follow-up operation on July 16.

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The six policemen including officer-in-charge Station Investigation and Detective Management Section (SIDMS) Juanito Arabejo and Chief of Clerk Aurelito Galvez and Navotas City Police Station chief PCol Allan Umipig were relieved from their post after "failed to supervise the conduct of police operation and corresponding investigation."

Rights advocates have expressed their alarm over Balatazar's killing, noting that the incident fits into a pattern of police forces' indiscriminate shooting.

On August 16, Senate Minority Bloc leaders Aquilino 'Koko' Pimentel III and Risa Hontiveros, respectively, filed a resolution calling for an investigation into the tragic death of the 17-year-old victim.

Interviewed by Hontiverors on August 30, Sonny Boy Augustillo, Baltazar's companion during the time of the incident, disclosed in his testament that he was forced to sign an affidavit claiming that his friend, Baltazar, had drugs and a gun during the incident.

On October 4, the Navotas City Regional Trial Court (RTC) ordered a warrant of arrest for the responsible six Navotas policemen.

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Perrenial Flooding

Flooding in most parts of the country was never new to Filipinos. In August this year, the Senate finally investigated the persistent flooding in the country.

Under the initiative of Senate Majority Leader Joel Villanueva, the chamber investigated and planned the government's measures to safeguard Metro Manila and other flood-prone areas in support of legislation for August 9.

He questioned the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) officials for failing to curb flooding despite its flood control budget this year of P182 billion and the increase next year to P215.6 billion.

Senators proposed a comprehensive integrated master plan that would streamline flood management initiatives in regions across the nation that are prone to flooding.

To handle the El Nino phenomenon, which was highlighted in the second State of the Nation Address (SONA), Villanueva claimed that President Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos was open to having a significant flood management master plan, which may be included in the mission of the proposed Department of Water Resource Management.

Cyber Attacks on Government Agencies

It was October when the Senate was alarmed by several government agencies that were under a "spike of cyber attacks." This includes the websites of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), PhilHealth, Department of Science and Technology (DOST), House of Representatives, and many more.

Many senators condemned the hacker's access to government agencies.

In April, Senator Ramon 'Bong' Revilla filed a resolution that urges a Senate panel to investigate, in aid of legislation, the alleged leak of personal records from the databases of the Philippine National Police (PNP), the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), and other government agencies.

According to him, data breaches in government records may lead to potential national security issues.

Meanwhile, Senator Mark Villar said in a statement that these attacks against government agencies are not only against the government.

"Ang mga ito ay bahagi ng malawakang atake laban sa publiko, sa mga mamamayang Pilipino na mayroong mga sensitibo at pribadong impormasyon sa mga ahensya ng gobyerno," he said.

Senator Peter Allan Cayetano, on the other hand, suggested to the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) to adopt a reward system to compensate anyone who can give information about the hacker and impose a stiffer penalty against the culprit.

Citing the police Anti-Cybercrime Group, Senator Risa Hontiveros said 16,297 cybercrime cases have been recorded in the first quarter of 2023 alone.

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Onion Smuggling

One of the controversies in 2023 was the soaring prices of onions in the market.

In May, the retail prices of onions climbed by at least P20 per kg, with the highest selling price reaching P200 per kilo based on the Department of Agriculture's (DA) monitoring.

President Marcos, who then stood as the Agriculture Secretary, blamed the onion hoarders for the price hike. He then directed the DOJ and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to launch an investigation into the hoarding and smuggling of onions and other agricultural products.

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In July six to seven individuals were linked to the onion cartel.

Senator Imee Marcos filed a Resolution to conduct an inquiry regarding the issue.

On October 12, the DOJ revealed Wednesday, Oct. 11, the names of three Department of Agriculture (DA) officials who were allegedly involved in the hoarding and smuggling of onions.

Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI)

Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI) was known to be a normal community in Surigao del Norte until Senator Risa Hontiveros revealed that the said community, led by Jey Rence Quilario, also known as Senior Agila, became a den for sexual abuse and forced marriage, especially among minors.

In a Senate hearing initiated by Hontiveros on September 28, three minor victims presented to the Senate to share their dark experiences with the alleged "cult.".

The victims disclosed that they have been victims of arranged marriage, sexual harassment, and abuse, such as requiring them to be part of the military at an early age.

Moreover, it was later revealed that adult SBSI members were also forced to work and surrender 40–60 percent of the money they received from government financial assistance programs, such as Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers (TUPAD) and Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations (AICS).

Criminal complaints were filed against the leader and its 12 members as per Department of Justice (DOJ) Secretary Jesus Crispin 'Boying' Remulla.

On September 28, Quilario and its three other members were cited in contempt for not telling the truth during the Senate's probe.

Later on, on November 7, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) arrested Quilario and three other SBSI leaders following the bureau's arrest warrant in the Senate.

Based on the warrant of arrest, the SBSI leader and 12 members have been charged with "the offense of qualified trafficking in persons," a violation of Republic Act No. 9208 as amended.

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Meanwhile, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has suspended the land agreement that formally authorizes SBSI to occupy 353 hectares of land in Brgy. Sering in the Municipality of Socorro, Surigao del Norte, the place where their community was built.

OVP spent ₱125 million in 2022

Vice President Sara Duterte drew attention from the public after the House Committee on Appropriations senior vice chairperson and Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo revealed that the Office of the Vice President (OVP) spent ₱125 million in confidential funds within 11 days in 2022.

However, according to House Appropriations Panel Vice Chair Maria Carmen Zamora, the CA's counting was "inaccurate" as it was counting on the OVP budget's utilization, which only began on December 20 and ended on December 31, 2022, hence 11 days.

Several groups have petitioned to question the OVP's expenditure in 2022.

Many senators have also expressed their opinions regarding the issue, including Senator Risa Hontiveros.

"Anong uri na naman ng magic ang ginamit nila para ubusin ang P125M sa loob ng 11 araw," she said.

On October 3, Hontiveros said that the Senate must look into the COA findings that the Davao local government unit (LGU) had ₱460 million in confidential and intelligence funds (CIF) during the helm of Duterte as Mayor.

“Whoever is against confidential funds is against peace. Whoever is against peace is an enemy of the nation." This was the line of Duterte after being attacked by her critiques.

During the deliberations on the 2024 proposed budget of the OVP, Senator Sonny Angara said that Duterte's office is letting go of its P500 million requested confidential funds for next year.

In October, the House of Representatives announced that it had removed P1.23 billion worth of confidential funds from five agencies, including the OVP and the DedpED.

A total of ₱650 million of the combined intelligence and confidential funds (CIF) from the OVP and Department of Education (DepEd) were transferred to the budgets of intelligence and security agencies.

POGO Ban

In April, the Senate pushed through the banning of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGO) in the country.

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The Senate Ways and Means Committee chaired by Senator Sherwin Gatchalian has submitted to Malacañang its chairman’s report seeking the ban of POGO in the country.

In a statement, Gatchalian said that deporting POGOs is a crucial step to stop the spread of crime coming from some POGO companies, hoping to achieve their goal of maintaining order in the Philippines which will also lead to economic growth.

He also mentioned that the POGOs’ contribution to revenue is not even worth the massive social costs associated with POGO-related crimes.

In September, at least 10 of the 18 members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee signed the committee report recommending the ban of POGOs, a development that Gatchalian said could help maintain peace and order and sustain economic growth in the country.

Marawi Bombing

December 3 has been a remarkable day for Marawi City.

It was 7:30 in the morning when a Marawi State University gym, which was attended by a mass number of students, got bombed by unidentified men.

According to the Philippine Army's 1st Infantry Division (1ID) public affairs officer, forty-six victims were brought to Marawi City’s Amai Pakpak Medical Center's (APMC) emergency room, with four confirmed dead and six set to undergo surgery.

Senate and House of Representatives lawmakers denounced the bombing and made inquiries regarding the incident.

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said it was disheartening to see such “completely heartless” violence in Marawi City several years after the 2017 siege.

“It is especially alarming to see such a brazen attack on a state university during a Catholic Mass. No one should have to feel unsafe in places of learning and places of worship,” he said.

The two suspects who were captured on CCTV footage during the incident were later arrested.

In an interview, AFP spokesperson Col. Medel Aguilar admitted that there was a 'failure of intelligence' in the latest bombing incident, saying that the radar does not always point to some events, such as the blowing up of MSU.

Pastor Quiboloy alleged sexual abuses

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It was December 11 when Senator Risa Hontiveros filed a resolution urging the Senate committee to conduct a legislative inquiry into the "reported cases of human trafficking, rape, sexual abuse, and violence, and child abuse allegedly" perpetuated by the Kingdom of Jesus Christ (KOJC) under the leadership of Apollo Quiboloy.

Hontiveros also called on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to issue an immigration lookout bulletin order (ILBO) against Quiboloy to prevent him from leaving the country and escape the probe into his religious group.

"I urged the Department of Justice to issue an immigration lookout bulletin order, which they can do motu proprio, to prevent Quiboloy from leaving the country. He must not escape accountability, our children's lives are at stake," Hontiveros said in a press conference.

Quiboloy has been wanted in the United States for his alleged participation in a labor trafficking scheme that brought church members via fraudulently obtained visas and forced the members to solicit donations for a bogus charity—donations that were used to finance church operations and the lavish lifestyles of its leaders.

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