MANILA- The Supreme Court has junked Senator Antonio Trillanes IV’s plea to dismiss businessman Antonio Tiu's damage suit over the senator's pronouncements that Tiu was a “dummy” of former Vice-President Jejomar Binay in the so-called "Hacienda Binay."
In a 22-page ruling penned by Associate Justice Noel Tijam, the high court affirmed the orders of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 101 denying Trillanes’ motion for the dismissal of Tiu’s P4.5-million damage suit in connection with the senator's pronouncements to the media from October 8 to 14, 2014.
Trillanes had said that the businessman was a "dummy" of Binay in the controversial 150-hectare Rosario, Batangas property, which came to be known as "Hacienda Binay."
Quezon City Presiding Judge Evangeline Castillo-Marigomen denied Trillanes’ motion to dismiss on May 19, 2015 and his motion for reconsideration on December 16, 2015.
Tiu alleged that because of Trillanes’ “defamatory statements,” his reputation was “severely tarnished” as shown by the “steep drop in the stock prices” of his publicly listed companies, AgriNurture, Inc. and Greenergy Holdings, Inc.
Tiu said the price per share of Greenergy was P0.011 on October 7, 2014 and the volume of trading was at 61 million, but the next day, October 8, the price dropped to P0.0099 per share, representing a 10 percent reduction, and the volume of trading increased by more than seven times at 475.7 million.
He alleged the price continued to drop thereafter.
AgriNurture experienced a 6 percent drop on October 8 from its share price of October 7, from P2.6 to P2.45, and an increase of more than six times in the volume of trading, from 68,000 to 409,000, also with the share price continuing to drop thereafter, he added.
Trillanes, for his part, told the trial court his pronouncements were “a statement of fact,” insisting that Tiu failed to prove his ownership of the estate, and the titles covering the estate are in the names of persons related to or associated with Binay.
Trillanes further argued that his pronouncements were “part of an ongoing debate on a matter of public concern," and Tiu, who appeared in the Senate inquiry into the issue “acquired the status of a public figure or quasi-public figure.”
He stressed that the statements, apart from being covered by his constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech and freedom of expression, are covered by his parliamentary immunity under Section 11, Article VI of the 1987 Constitution because these were made in the course of the performance of his duties.
In junking Trillanes’ petition, the high court said his statements fell outside the guarantees under the above-stated provision in the Constitution.
“The statements were clearly not part of any speech delivered in the Senate or any of its committees. They were also not spoken in the course of any debate in said fora,” the SC said.
“It cannot likewise be successfully contended that they were made in the official discharge or performance of [Trillanes’] duties as a Senator, as the remarks were not part of or integral to the legislative process,” it added.
LAWMAKERS NOT ‘SUPER CITIZENS’
The high court stressed that participating in media interviews are not part of a lawmakers’ legislative act but rather are “political in nature.”
“It is thus clear that parliamentary non-accountability cannot be invoked when the lawmaker’s speech or utterance is made outside sessions, hearings or debates in Congress, extraneous to the ‘due functioning of the (legislative process).’”
“To participate in or respond to media interviews is not an official function or any lawmaker; it is not demanded by his sworn duty nor is it a component of the process of enacting laws,” the SC said.
The Supreme Court added that statements that result in civil injury or criminal responsibility and a plea for damages on account of defamatory statements not covered by protected or privileged speech or debate are within the authority of courts to settle, contrary to Trillanes’ position that the Senate and the voters had disciplinary authority over him.
The Senate probe into the so-called "Hacienda Binay" was seen by Binay’s camp as an attempt to besmirch his name, being the then-frontrunner for the May 2016 presidential derby.