March 8, 2017 / 9:51 AM / 8 months ago

Philippine lawmakers dismiss Duterte loyalist over U.S. citizenship saga

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine lawmakers dismissed a close ally of President Rodrigo Duterte as foreign minister on Wednesday, citing “compelling issues” about his qualifications and his failure to prove he was not a U.S. citizen when he took the job.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay gestures during a commission on Appointment hearing at the Senate headquarters in Pasay city, metro Manila, Philippines March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

The Commission on Appointments unanimously decided not to approve Perfecto Yasay as minister, hours after a confirmation hearing in which he was grilled about his citizenship and inconsistent statements made during television interviews and to legislators while under oath.

Yasay has been foreign minister since Duterte took office in June last year. In the Philippines, confirmation hearings can take place long after ministers start work.

The U.S.-educated lawyer, a former classmate of the president and member of his inner circle, was the first casualty in Duterte’s eight-month-old Cabinet.

It is not clear who will replace Yasay in what is a crucial role for a government aggressively pursuing tighter business and defense ties with China, Russia and Japan. The Philippines is also chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

Panfilo Lacson, head of the commission’s foreign affairs panel, said Yasay’s close relationship with the president was no guarantee he should keep his job and said his conflicting comments under oath raised questions about his honesty.

“It was the view ... that he was not telling the truth,” Lacson told reporters.

“He was not forthright in the question-and-answer portion of the hearings.”

Yasay was not present for the decision and an aide who answered his telephone said there would be no immediate statement.

‘NERVOUS’ TESTIMONY

Numerous allegations have been made against Yasay but the main point was whether he was a U.S. citizen at the time of his appointment on June 30 last year.

Yasay has denied being a U.S. citizen, and said that although he was granted citizenship in the 1980s, he was disqualified because he had acquired it with a prior intent to renounce it and return to live in the Philippines.

He said his repeated use of a Philippine passport to visit the United States was “tacit acceptance” by Washington that he was not an American.

However, records of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service suggests Yasay may have held U.S. citizenship when he became foreign minister. The U.S. Federal Register last month published names of individuals who had lost citizenship, whose information had been received “during the final quarter” of 2016.

Yasay’s statements to the committee on Wednesday were loaded with legalese, lengthy and at times, confusing. He apologized to lawmakers and said he had not sought to deceive them.

“I did not lie. I may not have fully disclosed what was required ... but this is really no fun in a process like this,” he said.

“You get nervous. You somehow come up with answers that you do not intend, and I apologize for that.”

No conclusion was made by the committee as to whether or not Yasay was a U.S. citizen while foreign secretary.

The hearing also questioned whether the issue of his naturalization meant he had broken the law by serving as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission and running for senator and for vice president.

Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel

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