The Daily Tribune – Day of reckoning for Chief Justice

By Angie M. Rosales | The Daily Tribune

The-Daily-TribuneThe Senate impeachment court will hand down their verdict on impeached Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona today with his accusers yesterday zeroing in on his dollar deposits and its non-disclosure in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALn) even as the allegation of ill-gotten wealth was not among those they enumerated in their verified impeachment complaint, with the other two charges only mentioned in passing during the prosecution’s oral arguments to sum up the almost five-month proceedings.

Corona’s counsels, on the other hand, insisted that the chief magistrate’s failure to disclose his foreign currency deposits in his SALn did not amount to an impeachable offense.

It would take 16 votes from the 23 senator judges to convict Corona.

While both camps painstakingly delved on the issue, the existence of Corona’s dollar deposits that the chief magistrate himself admitted to be around $2.4 million and not $12 million as claimed by his accusers, the matter of his purported ill-gotten wealth has been “disallowed” by the Senate impeachment court, in a ruling last Jan. 26, mainly because it was not properly alleged in Article II of the eight Articles of Impeachment.

Article II only alleges that Corona

committed culpable violation of the Constitution and/or betrayal of public trust for not disclosing his SALn.

It was Senator-Judge Francis Escudero who took note of the issue by asking the court if they were trying to convict Corona on alleged questionable acts even prior to his assumption as Chief Justice.

“Each article must allege one impeachable act. I wanted it clarified because the prosecution had been presenting documents and discussing Corona’s acts since 1992 when he was former chief of staff of the previous President, chief legal counsel and associate justice,” Escudero pointed out which the presiding officer, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, took note of during the Jan. 25 proceedings.

The matter even prompted the prosecution panel to withdraw their petition to subpoena the bank managers of five commercial banks where Corona allegedly had huge deposits.

Lead prosecutor Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr. manifested the withdrawal of their petition, saying that it was in compliance with the court’s ruling that evidence on ill-gotten wealth was not to be presented.

Enrile thumbed down the issuance of subpoena as the impeachment court may be viewed as engaging in fishing expedition.

It can also be recalled that when Corona first appeared before the impeachment tribunal, the presiding officer nearly stopped the chief magistrate from continuing with his lengthy “opening statement” when he started to discuss ownership of some properties.

Enrile reminded Corona that they did not authorize the presentation of evidence pertaining to his alleged ill-gotten wealth, further advising the chief magistrate that by reviving the issue, he can be subject to cross-examination by the prosecution panel.

But Corona refused to be stopped telling the presiding officer that he felt the need to explain this issue since the public had been peddled supposed lies by his accusers.

Enrile, after both parties have fully explained their respective position, posed what could be the crucial issue in deciding on the case, asking both the defense and prosecution panels whether indeed Corona committed a violation in relation to the SALN law.

Initially, he sought from the lead defense counsel the issue of what injury or prejudice may arise if a depositor who was public officer or employee of a foreign currency deposit would include such account in his SALn.

“The probability of, let’s say kidnapping, extortion and so on may come into the picture, particularly with the present trend of criminality in the country today, there is no assurance that one is immune from any of these offenses, that maybe one,” Cuevas retored.

“Was that contemplated in your opinion of the framers of Republic Act 6426 (secrecy of bank deposits) as well as its predecessor, presidential decrees?” Enrile inquired.

“If we go into the declaration of policy, the declaration of policies is entirely different from the disastrous consequences or unwarranted circumstances that may occur thereafter because the policy behind it is to encourage,” Cuevas replied.

Enrile then related his question on the issue now confronting Corona whether a public officer or employee who maintains a foreign currency deposit will incur punity of RA 6426 if he would reflect such bank account in his SALn.

“I do not see that probability but it could amount to a vitiated consent as contra-distinguish to voluntary permission on the part of the depositor your honor,” Cuevas said.

“We are forgetting that the law allows the exposure of a foreign-currency deposit by expressed provision of RA 6426 if the depositor himself would do it. There’s no monetary-secrecy law in this country that prohibits or inhibits or proscribes the depositor from revealing his own deposits. What is prohibited is for third parties to reveal it and that’s why they’re penalized. But the depositor is not,” Enrile said.

Enrile then said the first sentence of Section 17, Article 11 of the Constitution stated that “public officer or employee shall, upon assumption of office and as often thereafter as may be provided by law, submit a declaration under oath of his SALn.”

“Do you consider that sentence as a mandatory provision that requires to be obeyed by a public officer or employee of the Republic of the Philippines? Do you consider that a command of the people or was it something that can be disregarded?” Enrile asked.

“I do not think it’s something that can be disregarded. But when there are rights that arise from a different law, I do not see any reason as to why it cannot be availed of, in this particular instance, by the depositor. Why the law has granted that is beyond my comprehension. That is a legislative function, the policy behind may only be known to the legislators themselves, I am not privileged, neither can I define the reason behind it,” said Cuevas.

“That will be our function, we’re just asking if you have any notion about it. My next question is, if it is a sovereign command, will disobedience constitute a culpable violation of the Constitution?” Enrile asked.

“Well I would not be in a position to (reply) your honor or to make a statement unless the actual, true facts are known to me because that will be a matter of conjecture or a surmise on my part,” Cuevas, a former SC justice, said.

At this point, Enrile turned technical in discussing the meaning of “culpable violation”, saying that it was a material issue in the case at hand.

“What is the difference between culpa and dolus?” asked Enrile.

“Dolus is intentional your honor if I recall correctly, culpa is negligence…..something like that,” Cuevas said.

“Fault. Deserving of blame. Now disobedience to the provision of Section 17, the first sentence of Article 11, do you consider that as deserving of blame? It does not call for any intent. Where in that provision will you find intent?” Enrile asked.

“I’m asking this question for our guidance based on your opinion. I would like to hear both sides about this. Can you help us in defining what is (the meaning of the word) culpa?” Enrile asked, addressed to the prosecution panel.

Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Farinas offered to provide the answer citing records of the Constitutional Commission.

“According to the records of the Constitutional Commission, violations of the Constitution is to mean ‘wilfull and intentional violation of the Constitution and not violation committed unintentionally or involuntarily or in good faith or through an honest mistake of judgment and it implies deliberate intent, perhaps even a degree of perversity for it is not easy to imagine that individuals in the category of these officials would go so far to defy knowingly what the Constitution commands,” Farinas said.

The judges appeared ready to hand down their verdicts on Corona after what they described as ‘enlightening’ final oral arguments of both the prosecution and the defense panels yesterday.

”It’s very educational and enlightening,” Senator-Judge Teofisto Guingona III said after the court granted both sides one hour to state their final arguments on the impeachment complaints against the chief justice.

Senator-Judge Ferdinand Marcos Jr. described the presentation of both sides as ‘very intelligent that requires us to listen well and pay attention to what has been said.”

”Although nothing new has been said, it is the last chance of both sides what they want to argue for the last time about the case,” Marcos said.

He said he will come up with a verdict based on the pieces of evidence presented by both sides and not based on “what happened outside the impeachment court.”

”That’s the only way I can make sure that I will have a clear conscience after I render my vote. Whatever is my vote, I want to be sure that I can sleep well,” Marcos said.

For his part, Senator-Judge Panfilo Lacson said the oral arguments helped him to understand very well all the issues presented by both sides.

”I have to think of my decision overnight,” Lacson said.

Senator-Judge Franklin Drilon said he has already reviewed all the documentary and testimonial evidence presented since Day 1 of the impeachment trial that started last January 16.

”Both are good. It is now clear to me the theory of both sides and all of us will consider that. I’m ready for tomorrow’s (Tuesday) judgment,” Drilon said.

On the plan of the defense to resort to certiorari if impeachment court found Corona guilty, Drilon said “it is their privilege.”

As expected, the prosecution banked on the failure of the highest magistrate of the land to disclose his $2.4 million and P80 million in cash in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth.

”He has given nothing but glib excuses for why he did not account for them. He wants this court and the court of public opinion to ignore his millions and pesos undeclared in his SALn. Is he prohibited from disclosing them in his SALn? Shouldn’t he be the one to set a good example?” House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said in his closing statement.

The defense insisted that Corona had no obligation to report his $2.4 million in four accounts and P80 million in co-mingled funds deposits in his SALn, saying Republic Act 6246 or the Foreign Currency Deposit Act provides “absolute confidentiality.”

”Unless the bank secrecy law is amended, absolute confidentiality of bank deposits stays. SC ruled that in case of doubt, confidentiality of bank deposits should be favored. We cannot hold Corona liable for believing in good faith in confidentiality of foreign-currency deposits,” defense lawyer Eduardo delos Angeles said.

Angeles said non-disclosure of bank accounts in SALn will not amount to impeachable offense, adding “officials should not be removed from office for minor breach of law,”

However, lead prosecutor Rep. Niel Tupas argued that the RA 6426 applies only to banking institutions and “not to the depositors.”

Tupas said Corona should be judged “by the highest standards”, calling the failure to disclose assets “deception of the highest order.”

For his part, prosecution member Rep. Rodolfo Farinas emphasized in his argument that the court should not be swayed by Corona’s alibis and drama.

”Renato Corona should not only be given his wish to be excused, he should be removed,” Farinas said.

The senator-judges are scheduled to render their verdict on Tuesday with each judge to be given two minutes to cast and explain their respective votes.

The prosecution will be needing 16 votes from the senator-judges to have Corona convicted while the defense will be hoping to get just eight votes for the acquittal of the chief justice.

The 188 members of the House of Representatives signed the eight articles of impeachment complaints on December 12 last year.

However, midway of the 43 days trial, the prosecution withdrew five articles, leaving only three including the non-disclosure of SALN under Articles 2.

The other two remaining complaints are Article 3 which covers allegation that the Corona committed culpable betrayal of public trust while Article 7 tackles partiality in granting the temporary restraining order (TRO) in favor of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and husband Mike Arroyo to allow them to leave to escape prosecution.

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