By ElCid Benedicto
AS TO what really caused the tiff between Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile and Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago that has escalated into a bitter exchanges, rearing its ugly head on the floor of the upper chamber, remains a mystery for most of their colleagues. Not even the most senior and veteran reporters who covered the Senate beat, including those travails of the two lawmakers dating back the administration of the late President Corazon “Cory” Aquino, could pinpoint where and how the “falling out” between Enrile and Santiago started. Based on their respective narration of events in their now infamous privilege speeches, the straw that broke the camel’s back, appeared to be already decades-old or during the time when Sen. Santiago—a former underling of Sen. Enrile when he was still the minister of justice during the Marcos era—was still a trial judge.
As to the circumstances of their squabble is only known to them although both made mention of an incident involving the release of a white Toyota Celica sports car reportedly owned by a former PNB vice president Toots Trinidad from the Bureau of Customs (BOC). Some former and current senators known to be personally close to Sen. Enrile expressed belief that there’s more serious issues other than the said case but could not pinpoint it due to sheer lack of knowledge. “There’s more to it than that car issue. It could not have triggered all these display of their fury against each other,” one former colleague who asked not to be identified, said. Another senator whom Sen. Enrile has been closely working with in the Senate in the last couple of years, likewise admitted ignorance to what really triggered the falling out between the two.
While it was obvious that even before Sen. Santiago joined Sen. Enrile in the Senate sometime during the 1990s, the two had not been seeing eye-to-eye, it has only been the last two years that their personal differences had been made glaring to the public.
Some Senate insiders noted though that during the time of the Estrada administration, when they were both members of the upper chamber, there had not been a clash of sort whether on the floor or outside of the premises of the Senate.
The two are known to be personally close to former President and now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, and even bonded together in defending him in the aborted impeachment trial until his downfall. “Remember they were even nearly charged with sedition during the EDSA 3 protests when they urged the crowd to siege and attempt to break into Malacanang?” a former Senate beat reporter recalled.
The incident was the reported rebellion that erupted in the early morning of May 1, 2001 when thousands of “pro-Erap” supporters stormed towards Malacanang Palace and several broadcast vans and crew cabs of ABS-CBN were torched.
Some policemen and soldiers were also not spared as they were assaulted by the lynch mob sympathetic to Estrada.
Both Sen. Enrile and Sen. Santiago were then senatorial candidates under the Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP) coalition seeking reelection at that time and both lost in the polls. Sen. Santiago, according to Sen. Enrile himself, was hired by him immediately after her graduation from the UP College of Law and her bar examination in 1969 in the then Ministry of Justice.
“When she got married, she asked me and my wife to be her wedding sponsors. When President Marcos transferred me from the Department of Justice to the Department of National Defense on February 10, 1970, my association with her ended, until we became colleagues again here in the Senate for the first time in 1995, under the Tenth Congress,” Sen. Enrile said in his privilege speech last November 27.
“I can only surmise, Mr. President that her deep-seated animosity against me arose from two events: One was when I opposed her confirmation as Secretary of Agrarian Reform during the administration of President Corazon C. Aquino. Another was when I refused to include her in the majority bloc when I was elected Senate President in November 2008 and, again, in July 2010.
“During the hearing of the Commission on Appointments on her confirmation as Secretary of Agrarian Reform, testing the suitability and qualifications of the nominee then, I asked her if she was ever under the care of a psychiatrist. She admitted that she was. She said that she was treated by a psychiatrist at the Makati Medical Center.
“In the same Commission on Appointments committee deliberation, I asked her also what grade she got in her bar examination. She replied that she got 76%. That meant that she obtained low grades in all her bar subjects. In fact, I remember that she got a grade of 56% in Ethics, the easiest bar examination subject.
“In that same Commission on Appointments committee deliberation, I asked about a white Toyota Celica sports car that the nominee then was said to be driving as her personal car when she was a judge in Quezon City. Toots Trinidad, a former PNB Vice President, owned that sports car. He shipped it back to the Philippines upon his return from the United States after his surgical operation for a brain tumor at the Stanford University. That sports car disappeared from the compound of the Bureau of Customs when it arrived in the Port of Manila.
“Toots Trinidad learned that his sports car was with a judge of Quezon City. Toots Trinidad asked then Judge Miriam Defensor Santiago to give the car back to him. She refused. I was told that she claimed that her husband, Narciso Yap Santiago of the Province of Tarlac, who was at that time employed in the Bureau of Customs, gave her that sports car as a birthday gift. Later on, I found out that the car was registered in her name in the Bureau of Land Transportation in the Province of Tarlac.”
“As a consequence of my opposition, and among other concerns taken into consideration, the Committee on Agrarian Reform of the Commission on Appointments voted to reject her appointment as Secretary of Agrarian Reform,” he said.
In her version of the story, Sen. Santiago claimed in her privilege speech last Wednesday that the minority leader was allegedly “brokering” for the smuggling of the said vehicle into the country.
“Enrile violated the law, when he tried to pressure my husband, then a customs collector, to release a smuggled Toyota car, forfeited for failure to pay correct customs duties and charges. At that time, the policy of the Bureau of Customs was to forfeit smuggled cars, and to use them as official vehicles for authorized senior staff. My husband was only one of the many staff who earned this privilege by exemplary work, evidenced by annual certificates of commendation issued by the customs commissioner. And yet Enrile zeroed in only on my husband. Enrile kept threatening to oppose my confirmation as agrarian reform secretary, unless my husband released the smuggled car to the smuggler. As a former customs commissioner, Enrile wanted to bend the law for his illegal clients. In time, my husband and other senior staff returned the smuggled cars to the BOC.”
“I owned and drove a Mercedes when I was a trial judge. Enrile’s charge that I registered the smuggled car in my name in Tarlac is inane, and the product of his febrile imagination. My husband already owned and drove a Ford Mustang sports car as a senior in law school. This tale of a Toyota is a non-issue,” she said.
Some veteran Senate reporters who could relate to the incident narrated by Sen. Enrile on Sen. Santiago’s confirmation proceedings recalled that they were told that the minority leader was actually just bluffing her, supposedly, when confronted with her clinical records.
“What he was holding then were actually just press releases. He did showed some stacks of documents but those were press releases and yet she caved in,” they claimed. On the day of the “counter-speech” of Sen. Santiago to the privilege speech of Sen. Enrile last Dec. 4, the minority leader arrived at the plenary hall armed with a thick envelope and insinuated to reporters, during an interview, that those were supposedly some incriminating documents.
He did mention on the floor after Sen. Santiago delivered her speech and left the session hall that he has in his possession some of her supposed medical records pertaining to her mental health but did not elaborate further. As to how this wrangling between the two warring senators would end is yet to be known although there’s an effort courtesy of Sen. Jinggoy Estrada to have them bury the hatchet.