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A salute to Saludo for Challenging De Venecia et al

(Article published in the Aug 12, 2002 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

Kudos to Rep. Aniceto "Dong" Saludo, Jr. who on July 31 delivered a privilege speech entitled "An Evil Most Foul" with the subtitle "(The Country’s Top Taxman is in Reality the Top Tax Fixer, Economic Saboteur and Plunderer rolled into One)". While ostensibly speaking against the person and performance of BIR Commissioner René Bañez, he was in fact, in consummate artistry, challenging the moral mettle, the commitment to truth, and fidelity of Speaker Jose De Venecia and the rest of his colleagues in the House.

Saludo delivered a controversial speech and then, thumbing his nose at the entire House of Representatives, dared the Speaker and his fellow representatives (what they do in fact represent though nowhere defined in the Constitution is explicit in the way the populace regards them) to take disciplinary action against him. Under the guise of putting Bañez in the pillory, he successfully put de Venecia and his colleagues on the spot, poking at their bulging bellies to see if they have the guts to put to task a member of their own cozy casa.

The choice of venue for Saludo’s philippic was excellent. Had he chosen to deliver his message elsewhere, other people, and not his colleagues, would have had to bear the burden of showing their own disgust. The mild-mannered Bañez, though unlikely, could theoretically sue him for libel and that will put to test the integrity of the members of the judiciary, not the conscience of the lawmakers.

The floor of Congress was the sole forum fit for Saludo’s purpose because, under what is known as parliamentary immunity, "no member [of Congress] shall be questioned nor be held liable in any other place for any speech or debate in the Congress or in any committee thereof" (Section 11, Article. VI, Constitution). Since only his peers at the House can question him and make him responsible for what he says on its floor, Saludo made sure that Speaker De Venecia and the rest of the congressmen could run from his challenge. Only they have the legal standing to correct his moral affront and he is daring them to put up or shut up.

Saludo started with a disdainful investigation into his colleagues’ capacity to spot elementary fallacy, an introductory exercise in Logic 101. He starts with what is obvious to everyone: tax collections have fallen short of the target. This gets his peers nodding, not in sleep (as they were wont to do), but in agreement. He very smartly refrains from any attempt to delve into the reasons for the shortfall since that would break the trance on his audience. Instead, he mumbo-jumbos the shortfall into "welfare losses". Never mind that he did not explain the methodology he used to achieve the translation (assuming he actually understood how that can be scientifically done). Explaining his methodology would have weakened the emotional impact of his diatribe. Instead, he screams, out of the blue, that "this is the staggering cost of gross mismanagement and ineptitude." "This is the price", he rants on, "we are paying for the indolent performance of René Bañez ".

Clearly, his opening challenge is: "Hey, Speaker Joe! Hello gangmates! Let me see if you have enough brains to see the fault in my reasoning. And, assuming without conceding that you do, I am sure you all are too weak-kneed to do anything about it."

Such opening salvo was, however, to use one of Saludo’s tired clichés, "only the tip of the iceberg". He reminds the Speaker that a week ago, he had already been denigrating, also in the protected confines of the halls of Congress, the name of Bañez. No one, at that time, appeared to have considered it worth his while to listen to him, and so, he tells them that he had already told them about "the certifiable incompetence and utmost lack of accountability" of Bañez, that he had called him a "dud" and an "NPA –non-performing asset."

Saludo starts his regurgitation by declaring that the "BIR under the leadership of Bañez did not appeal the decision" in two cases which the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA) issued in favor of the Fort Bonifacio Development Corporation (FBDC) where René was once the tax director and vice president. Those were CTA Cases 6021 and 5962.

The decision in CTA Case 6021 was promulgated on January 30, 2002. On February 26, 2002, the BIR, through Alberto R. Bomediano, Jr., filed a motion for reconsideration. On April 19, 2002, FBDC filed its opposition to the motion for reconsideration. On May 28, 2002, the CTA, recognizing the conflicting views of the members of the division, issued a resolution holding action on the motion for reconsideration in abeyance "until the appointment or designation of the third judge". You see, Saludo was correct! BIR did not appeal CTA Case 6021. It could not appeal, because the decision, is not yet final.

In the other case, CTA Case 5962, the BIR, also through Bomediano, Jr. filed a petition for review in the Court of Appeals to question the decision of the CTA decided on December 7, 2001. When FBDC tried to get a writ of execution from the CTA, the court denied on June 24, 2002, FDBC’s motion, recognizing that the Court of Appeals was yet to determine whether the petition for review was a valid appeal by the BIR. So, again, Saludo was correct! In CTA Case 5962, the BIR did not appeal, it filed instead a Petition for Review.

Surely, Saludo did not think that Speaker de Venecia and the House Ethics Committee would be stupid enough not to be aware of these facts. He deliberately engaged in this sophistry because he was taunting de Venecia and the House Ethics Committee, certain that they would mistake a Sophist for Sophia Loren if they saw one.

Saludo then proceeded to exclaim that the "BIR Commissioner was instrumental in the reduction of the zonal valuation of the land at the FBDC project from P100,000 to Php 30,000 per square meter" pointing out how scandalous this was considering that "the same land was purchased from the government at P33,000 per square meter when it was then undeveloped raw land."

He of course, knew that the zonal value of land at the Global City is P100,000 per square meter for developed areas and P35,000 per square meter for the undeveloped. He also knew that zonal valuations are fixed by a committee, known as the Technical Committee on Real Property Valuation, with a representative each from the Bureau of Local Government of the Finance Department, the National Tax Research Center, Philippine Association of Realty Appraisers, Philippine Association of Realtor’s Board and the chief of the Asset Valuation Division of the BIR and the Assistant Commissioner of the Assessment Service. But, he also must have thought that even if his colleagues knew he was giving them the offal, they let him get away with it.

To instill fear on his colleagues (the fear to be exposed that they do not understand an eroteric term as SARO), Saludo claimed that Bañez is to blame for the fact that PLDT and Smart Communications were able to settle part of their tax liabilities, to the extent of P1.18 billion, using the Special Allotment Release Order in their favor. What Saludo did not disclose, however, was the fact that the said SARO was issued on November 27, 2002 upon instructions of then Department of Budget Management Benjamin Diokno and the payments were recorded on December 29, 2000. And René Bañez became Commissioner of Internal Revenue almost a month and a half later, on February 9, 2001. Saludo knew all these, but he also knew de Venecia and his colleagues do not know their dates.

No exposé is, of course, worth the froth in the exposer’s mouth without relating it to the latest buzz in town, the PLDT-Gokongwei-Salim Group controversy. So, Saludo accused Bañez of spending his leave of absence in Hong Kong in the company of his former boss Manny Pangilinan during the negotiations. Never mind that René Bañez in the last two years had not set foot in Hong Kong. Saludo was confident that de Venecia and his colleagues would not dare an inquiry on who had been and who had not been in Hong Kong recently, for fear of seeing some of their own names in the list of visitors.

Finally, Saludo accused Bañez of violating the COMELEC ban on the transfer of employees during the 2001 elections and recited the accusations in E.O. Case 01-115 brought by the Philippine Association of Revenue District Officers against Bañez. Saludo crows "We now can look forward to the law being enforced by the new COMELEC Chairman Ben Abalos, Sr. who can redress the grievances of BIR officials and employees whose rights were violated by against Bañez." Saludo was aware, or should have been aware, that six days before he opened his mouth in Congress, Abalos and the six other commissioners, in an en banc resolution, unanimously dismissed that case for lack of merit.

But Saludo was perhaps not really concerned with that. It was of no moment to him whether Bañez was exonerated or not. What was important was that he could tell a blatant falsity in front of de Venecia and his colleagues, and get away with it.

So, cheers and not jeers, should be accorded dishonorable Congressman Saludo, for his July 31, 2002 privilege speech. Without his faulty logic, deliberate sophistry, and obvious falsehoods about Bañez, we would not have the chance to see if Speaker de Venecia and the House Committee on Ethics have the moral strength to make one like Saludo answer for what he says. Saludo threw them a challenge they cannot run away from. De Venecia and the Ethics Committee have no excuse for doing nothing. Unless, of course, they consider Saludo a nobody.