MANILA, Philippines - Resigned Department of the Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Rico E. Puno on Friday called "outright lies" a string of allegations he is being asked to refute at a Senate hearing.
Appearing before the Senate constitutional amendments committee of Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago. Puno denied he is a protector of "jueteng," that he ransacked or raided the condominium of his boss, DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, and that he was involved in the bidding for P1.2-billion worth of guns for the Philippine National Police (PNP).
"I would like to state that I can face anyone in the eye and show that these are all lies. That is why I am here," Puno declared at the start of the hearing.
Puno said "two years ago I faced this body to rebut accusation that with regard to jueteng. I was accused of being a top jueteng protector. My accusers wanted everyone to believe that even if I was only at the office for two months I was able to rise to be great power that they pictured me to be such a short time."
He said his accusers "relied on lies and baseless accusations. They depended on the erroneous saying that a lie repeated many times will eventually become the truth."
"I disagreed with my accusers. A lie should remain a lie, how often it is re repeated," Puno said.
He said "no evidence has been presented to support the allegations against me."
Retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz, who was invited to the hearing, said jueteng continues to thrive despite repeated efforts by the government to quell it.
Cruz, a vocal anti-jueteng advocate, said the illegal numbers game is "a corrupting business that kills."
Explaining his presence at the DILG offices of Robredo, Puno said he went there with instructions from President Benigno S. Aquino III to secure sensitive documents.
"I followed the orders. After securing the DILG secretary's office, I learned from Supt. Oliver Tanseco, deputy senior police assistant for the office of the secretary, that there were documents in the condominium," he said, referring to Robredo's condominium residence.
"Prudence dictated that we also secure the condominium. The accusations that we raided and ransacked the office and condominium are truly unfair and unfounded for the reason that no such raid. It was an order to secure, witnessed by representatives of the late secretary. Elements of the Quezon city police and representative of the internal security of the secretary, regular guards of the building and my staff," he said.
Puno said his refusal to explain his actions "has been propagated as a sign of guilt," and that some members of media "require me to prove my innocence."
Santiago read an email she received which questioned Puno's move to install his relatives in government positions.
The email writer also claimed that Puno had been spreading the word he would be transferred to the Bureau of Customs.
Puno denied he was floating information of his imminent transfer to Customs but confirmed some of his relatives were in various government agencies.
His daughter, Romina "Ina" Puno, was employed at the Bureau of Immigration because of her father's influence, the email stated.
Puno also arranged for his brother Patrick to be appointed to the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) Vice President for Finance and Procurement in 2010.
Puno's cousin, Adolfo Escalona, is the executive director of the powerful Road Board-an agency Santiago previously investigated.
A nephew, Marco Puno Santiago, was appointed as assistant secretary at the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office (PLLO) purportedly to coordinate road projects to members of the House of Representatives. A niece, Ma. Angela Escalona Ignacio, was named commissioner of a sub-agency at the Department of Finance.
Santiago said the letter also alleged that Puno has been "badmouthing" her and her husband, former DILG secretary Narciso "Jun" Santiago and was telling friends that when he assumes his new position, he will do everything to oust Customs Deputy Commissioner Horacio Suansing Jr..
"That's all hearsay and lies," Puno said, adding that he does not personally know Suansing.
Senators Alan Peter S. Cayetano and Aquilino Pimentel III showed up, providing the quorum necessary for the inquiry.
Aside from Puno, Santiago also invited to the investigation Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., Environment Secretary Ramon Paje, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Transportation Secretary and incoming DILG secretary Manuel "Mar" Roxas II.
None of them showed up.
In a letter sent to Santiago's committee, Ochoa explained that the Palace needs a "requisite referral by the plenary" before it sends its Cabinet officials to the inquiry.
He also said the committee did not furnish Malacañang with a list of questions to guide the resource persons.
Santiago called "duling" (cross-eyed) the lawyer who she said must have drafted the letter. She said an advance list of questions is required only for a constitutional Question Hour, not a committee hearing in aid of legislation.
Santiago said she will no longer require the Cabinet members to attend the next hearing.
"We're no longer in good terms with Malacanang, (I) will no longer draft any recommendations because I've been snubbed by Malacanang, they don't want to send their Cabinet members here," Santiago said after the hearing.
But in a briefing in Malacañang, Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the Executive is willing to cooperate with the Santiago panel but "there are certain rules that we would like to clarify. For instance, the scope of the questions to the Cabinet secretaries."
Once these are met, Lacierda the Cabinet can provide "more useful information" to the Senate committee and facilitate a "more fruitful discussion" on the issues at hand.
Lacierda said he hopes Santiago will not consider the Palace move as "adversarial." "They just wanted a clarification and enlightenment on this, and certainly, the executive branch will cooperate," he said.
Lacierda also said the invited officials had to attend a Cabinet cluster meeting at the Palace on Friday. -with aditional report from Genalyn D. Kabiling