Guilty: Chief Justice Renato C. Corona

MANILA, Philippines – Senators voted overwhelmingly yesterday to remove Chief Justice Renato Corona from office for betrayal of public trust by failing to disclose all his assets.

The verdict ended more than four months of an impeachment trial that gripped the nation and put to test the Aquino administration’s resolve to fight corruption.

Twenty of the 23 senators, including Senate President and impeachment court presiding officer Juan Ponce Enrile, voted to convict Corona for his failure to fully disclose his wealth in his statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALNs), based on Article 2 of the impeachment charges signed by 188 members of the House of Representatives.

Only three senators – Joker Arroyo, Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. – voted to acquit Corona.

“The Senate, sitting as an impeachment court, having tried Renato C. Corona, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, upon three Articles of Impeachment charged against him by the House of Representatives, by a guilty vote of 20 senators representing at least two-thirds of all the members of the Senate, has found him guilty of the charge under Article 2 of the said Articles of Impeachment,” Enrile declared after announcing his vote, which was the last.

“Now therefore be it adjudged, that Renato C. Corona be, and is hereby convicted, of the charge against him in Article 2 of the Articles of Impeachment, so ordered,” he added.

As provided for in the Rules of Procedure on impeachment trials, the impeachment court did not have to vote anymore on the two remaining Articles of Impeachment because a conviction had already been secured on Article 2. Corona had also been accused of bias for former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and of tinkering with a Supreme Court ruling on a case filed by employees of Philippine Airlines against the flag carrier.

Corona is the first ranking official to be removed from office through impeachment.

Corona’s admission of owning $2.4 million in four dollar accounts and P80.7 million in three peso accounts proved to be the most damaging evidence against him.

Sen. Edgardo Angara cast the first vote to declare Corona guilty of culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust.

“Pera, kapangyarihan, away pamilya – ito ang ugat ng storya (Money, power and family feud, this is the root of the story),” Angara said in explaining his vote.

“The Supreme Court no less has said ‘no position exacts a greater demand on moral righteousness and uprightness of an individual than a seat in the judiciary.’ As the head of the judiciary, a standard far higher is placed on Chief Justice Renato C. Corona,” he added.

“He has lost his moral fitness to serve the people. He has betrayed the public trust. He cannot be the Chief Justice a minute longer,” Sen. Franklin Drilon said in explaining his vote for conviction.

Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr.’s vote was the 16th and would have been enough to convict the Chief Justice, but his vote was followed by four more guilty verdicts from senators Antonio Trillanes IV, Manuel Villar Jr., Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III and Enrile.

The other senators who voted for conviction were Senate Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano, Pia Cayetano, Francis Escudero, Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada, Teofisto Guingona III, Gregorio Honasan, Panfilo Lacson, Manuel Lapid, Loren Legarda, Sergio Osmeña III, Francis Pangilinan, Aquilino Pimentel III and Ralph Recto.

Unbelievable

Drilon said there was no doubt about Corona’s guilt because the huge amount he admitted as his own “speaks for itself.”

“Respondent admits he did not declare $2.4 million and P80 million in his SALN. The enormity of respondent’s hidden assets – over P180 million or 50 times more than his declared cash assets – is scandalous. It is grossly disproportionate to his total income for 10 years of about P27 million. It establishes a prima facie case of ill-gotten wealth under the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act,” Drilon said in explaining his vote.

“P180 million. Res Ipsa Loquitor. The thing speaks for itself,” he added.

Recto argued that while there could be no statistically perfect SALN, the amount revealed by Corona was anomalously staggering.

“So this boils down to the degree of the unintentional miscalculation and logic dictates that we accept slight inaccuracies because if we leave no room for those, then, believe me, no government official will be left behind his desk,” Recto said.

“In the case of the Chief Justice’s SALN, the undeclared assets are so huge, 50 times more than what he declared in cash – 2.4 million in US dollar deposits, 80 million in peso deposits – that they cannot be brushed aside as innocent exclusions,” he added.

Escudero said that even though he did not approve of the manner by which the House of Representatives proceeded with the impeachment of the Chief Justice, Corona’s non-declaration of some of his assets constitutes an impeachable offense.

“If you do not want to declare this then you should not run for or accept any position in government. But if you are in government then you must declare these,” Escudero said in Filipino.

Lacson said that he conducted his own research on the bank accounts of the Chief Justice over the weekend and found out that at one point, he held $3,977,790.87 and P91,280,499.22.

“If you ask me, so what is the difference between $3.9 million and $2.4 million, between P91 million and P80.7 million? My answer is: a lot of money,” Lacson said.

“Even if the standards of moral fitness for such a lofty position in government were lowered, an acquittal may still be difficult to justify,” he added.

Pia Cayetano said that she would have accepted “minor inaccuracies” in the SALN such as the parking lots or condominium units whose ownership is under contention.

“In fact, corrections are allowed under the law. But the failure to declare $2.4 million and some P80 million is not minor. I also have difficulty accepting the defense on co-mingled funds. The fact of co-mingling, I can accept that, but the huge amount involved leaves too much doubt in my mind,” Cayetano said.

“Those of us who sit as judges, those who acted as prosecutors and all those in public service should not hide behind our titles. We must come clean and give meaning to the constitutional requirement that we declare all our assets,” she added.

Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano, for his part, lamented that there was an apparent double standard in the treatment of peso and dollar deposits because the defense had argued that dollar deposits do not have to be declared in the SALN.

“Why do we complicate what is so simple? I don’t blame this court for sticking to technicalities because this is supposed to protect the rights of the people. But somehow, in this country, it is being used to protect people who plunder this country,” he said.

“Presume him guilty. Presume him innocent. Give him his day in court. Ascribe to him good faith. Yes, in civil and criminal cases, as well as in the media; but not today, and not in this impeachment court,” he added.

Guingona also said that Corona clearly violated the provisions of the Constitution when he failed to declare all of his assets in his SALN.

Guingona denounced the Chief Justice’s use of the Constitution to justify the “concealment of millions of dollars in his personal bank accounts.”

“This is constitutional perversion in its ultimate form,” Guingona said.

“Based on the evidence, on what was said and admitted by the accused and in recognition of the sanctity of the Constitution of the Philippines, my judgment is this: the respondent Chief Justice of the Supreme Court no longer deserves the trust of the Filipino people,” Guingona said in Filipino.

“There is no law exempting co-mingled funds from disclosure in the SALN,” Pimentel said for his part.

“We should not penalize the poor man for stealing a bicycle but rule that the rich man must first steal a Mercedes to be penalized,” Osmeña said, citing a case of a government employee dismissed from her job for failing to declare her renting of a market stall.

Villar said he sympathizes with Corona but would not buy his defense that his $2.4-million deposits should not be placed in his SALN.

Honasan said that while it was never proven that Corona was corrupt or malicious, there were strong doubts on his fitness to continue serving as chief justice.

Unexpected breakthrough

The prosecution unexpectedly gained headway during the trial when the Chief Justice himself was forced to admit his peso and dollar deposits not declared in his SALN in reaction to testimony from Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales.

As hostile witness for the defense, the Ombudsman presented a report she received from the Anti-Money Laundering Council detailing hundreds of transactions that the Commission on Audit said could reach $10 million to $12 million. The defense panel had sought Morales’ testimony in the hope of proving that the cases filed with her office against Corona were without basis.

The Chief Justice denied that he owns $10 million to $12 million in 82 bank accounts as disclosed by the Ombudsman and that the actual amounts were just $2.4 million for the dollar accounts and P80.7 million for the peso accounts.

He admitted to not declaring all of these amounts in his SALN because they were not his alone.

For the dollar accounts, the Chief Justice cited absolute confidentiality as provided for under Republic Act 6426 or the Foreign Currency Deposit Act.

He claimed the P80.7-million deposits represented co-mingled funds of his family and the P34.7 million that was held in trust for Basa Guidote Enterprises Inc. (BGEI), a corporation owned by the family of his wife Cristina.

The amount, he said, represented proceeds of the sale of BGEI property in Sampaloc, Manila.

“With all due respect, I believe that the respondent Chief Justice’s reliance on the absolute confidentiality accorded to foreign currency deposits under Section 8 of Republic Act No. 6426 is grossly misplaced,” Enrile said.

“The non-disclosure of these deposits, in both local and foreign currency, would naturally result in a corresponding distortion of the Chief Justice’s real net worth. And so, with full trust that the Almighty will see us through the aftermath of this chapter in our nation’s history, I vote to hold the Chief Justice, Renato C. Corona, guilty as charged under Article 2, Par. 2.3, and that his deliberate act of excluding substantial assets from his sworn statement of assets, liabilities and net worth constitutes a culpable violation of the Constitution,” he added.

He also said Corona had “justifiable and legal grounds to rely on the Supreme Court’s procedural and policy guidelines governing such disclosures as embodied in a resolution promulgated way back in 1989 when the respondent was not yet a member of the Supreme Court.”

This resolution was cited by the lawyers of Corona as their response to the non-disclosure of his SALN to the public as required by the Constitution.

However, Enrile noted that the most significant charge in Article 2 involved his non-disclosure of cash assets.

Enrile lamented the defense and prosecution panels’ failure to present any officials from AMLC or from banks mentioned in the AMLC report.

What Corona did instead was to sign a waiver on the confidentiality of his dollar deposits, which he initially did not release to the Senate.

He had earlier dared Drilon and the 188 lawmakers who signed his impeachment to sign a similar waiver as condition for presenting his own to the impeachment court.

“Laudable as this belated act on the part of the respondent Chief Justice may be, it would have served him better if he had just presented bank documents as evidence to either confirm or refute the documents showing his bank transactions as presented by the Ombudsman,” Enrile said.

“Moreover, even as the Chief Justice had full access to his own bank accounts and all the opportunity to introduce evidence to disprove the data, findings and analysis presented by the Ombudsman or the report of the AMLC, the defense did not introduce any such evidence. As it is, the impeachment court could only rely on the documents supplied by the Ombudsman which show the respondent’s bank transactions but which do not show the actual bank balances of respondent’s bank accounts,” he added. – By Marvin Sy With Christina Mendez

Guilty: Corona accepts fate after Senate’s 20-3 vote

Guilty.

But beyond that vote of 20 of the 23-member Senate ousting Chief Justice Renato Corona for dishonesty in submitting his statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs), Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano pointed to a “new paradigm” in good governance.

He said that he admired Corona’s submission of an unconditional waiver during his second appearance before the Senate impeachment court on Friday allowing the government to scrutinize all his assets, not just the bank accounts.

Saying the Corona waiver “has set a new standard” among public officials, Cayetano said that President Benigno Aquino III should now instruct his Cabinet to do the same “or resign and leave government.”

“Lead by following, or get out of the way,” he said, noting that the same standard should be applied from the executive branch down to the barangay (village) level. “We should all follow this standard. The standard for one should be the standard for all.”

The 20-3 vote ousting the 63-year-old Corona came after 43 riveting days of the nationally televised impeachment trial for culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust.

In a statement issued from his hospital bed, Corona said he was accepting his “calvary” and left unanswered the question of whether he would still go to the Supreme Court to seek relief, possibly a declaration of mistrial. His lawyers said they were still to meet with Corona later in the evening.

The senators took Corona to task for his failure to include some $2.4 million in bank deposits—on top of an allegedly commingled amount worth P80.7 million—in his SALNs from 2002 to 2010.

“The Senate, sitting as an impeachment court, having tried Renato C. Corona,  Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, upon three articles of impeachment charged against him by the House of Representatives, with a guilty vote by 20 senators representing at least two-thirds of all the members of the Senate, has found him guilty of the charge under Article 2 of the said articles of impeachment,” Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile announced after four hours of voting.

“Now, therefore, be it adjudged that Renato C. Corona is hereby convicted of the charge against him in Article 2. So ordered,” he continued, before banging the gavel to signal the end of the impeachment trial.

Subdued applause

The announcement was greeted by subdued clapping from the gallery, despite restrictions imposed by the Senate sergeant at arms.

Copies of the verdict were ordered transmitted to President Aquino, who campaigned for Corona’s removal, the Supreme Court en banc, Corona’s camp, the House of Representatives, and the Judicial and Bar Council, which would provide the President with a short list of candidates as the next Chief Justice.

The conviction puts an abrupt end to Corona’s stint as the country’s highest magistrate, which began in May 2010 with his disputed appointment by the outgoing President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

House prosecutors got the crucial 16th vote to remove Corona when Senator Ramon Revilla Jr. took the floor and rendered a guilty verdict. Four more senators—Vicente Sotto III, Antonio Trillanes IV, Manuel Villar, and Enrile—followed suit, bringing to 20 the number of senator-judges who found the Chief Justice guilty.

Only Senators Joker Arroyo, Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. voted to acquit Corona. They all agreed that Corona’s failure to disclose assets in his SALNs was not an impeachable offense.

History is final judge

As presiding officer, Enrile cast the final vote with Corona’s fate already sealed. He provided an overview of the entire trial, its curious twists and turns and legal and “moral dilemmas.”

“I have constantly held that those who face the judgment of imperfect and fallible mortals like us have recourse to the judgment of history, and, ultimately, of God,” he said.

“And so, with full trust that the Almighty will see us through the aftermath of this chapter in our nation’s history, I vote to hold the Chief Justice, Renato C. Corona, guilty as charged under Article 2, Paragraph 2.3, and that his deliberate act of excluding substantial assets from his sworn statement of assets, liabilities and net worth constitutes a culpable violation of the Constitution.”

Majority of the senators did not buy Corona’s position that he was precluded from declaring his dollar deposits—purportedly his family savings of nearly four decades—in his SALNs because of the “absolute” confidentiality provision of the Foreign Currency Deposit Act (Republic Act No. 6426).

Enrile, in particular, rejected Corona’s reason that he did not declare some P80.7 million worth of deposits in three peso accounts because they were “commingled” with his family’s savings, including money from Basa Guidote Enterprises Inc. (BGEI).

“Assuming that any part of such deposits in truth belonged to third parties, the respondent could have indicated such third-party funds as corresponding liabilities in his SALN. That would have reflected his real net worth,” the Senate President said.

Grossly misplaced

Enrile described as “grossly misplaced” the Chief Justice’s “reliance on the absolute confidentiality” provided under RA 6426. He cited the constitutional requirement for all government employees to submit SALNs.

“Are we now to say that this constitutional command is limited to a public official’s assets or deposits in local currency? If so, would we not be saying, in effect, that the Constitution allows something less than a full, honest and complete disclosure?” he asked.

Enrile said Corona could have converted his dollar deposits into peso and reflected them in his SALNs. “The nondisclosure of these deposits, in both local and foreign currency, would naturally result in a corresponding distortion of the Chief Justice’s real net worth,” he said.

Because Corona was already found guilty of the second article of impeachment, the court no longer voted on the two other charges—Article 3 on the alleged flip-flopping SC decisions, and Article 7 on the Supreme Court’s temporary restraining order against a justice department order preventing Arroyo from seeking medical treatment abroad.

Hypocrisy

A recurring issue throughout the trial was the matter of “hypocrisy.”

Enrile acknowledged the question as to why Corona should be punished for an error—the failure to make full disclosure of assets in SALNs—when others in government were most likely doing it as well.

“I believe it is our duty to resolve this ‘dilemma’ in favor of upholding the law and sound public policy,” said Enrile, one of the richest members of the upper chamber.

“If we were to agree with the respondent that he was correct in not disclosing the value of his foreign currency deposits because they are absolutely confidential, can we ever expect any SALN to be filed by public officials from here on to be more accurate and true than they are today?”

Macho bloc

The House prosecution’s campaign to oust Corona gathered the support of all blocs in the Senate, including most members of Senator Manuel Villar’s Nacionalista Party group. Enrile’s so-called “macho bloc” consisting of Sotto, Estrada and Honasan all voted against Corona.

Not long ago, Villar waged a bitter campaign against Mr. Aquino during the 2010 presidential election. Thus, his vote was closely watched, considering that the President was considered the main architect of Corona’s removal.

Technicalities

He spent most of his speech on Tuesday, not to explain his vote, but to recall the vilification he had likewise suffered in public. In the end, his vote turned out to be to Mr. Aquino’s liking.

“I believe that CJ Corona is a good man,” he began, “but in this issue of the (Foreign Currency Deposit) account, he was wrong. I believe that the law applies equally to all, whether rich or poor, a member of the Supreme Court or an ordinary citizen.”

Senator Alan Peter Cayetano sought to simplify the issue against Corona and the Chief Justice’s invocation of the absolute confidentiality provision.

“Why do we complicate what is so simple? Technicalities should protect the rights of the people. I don’t blame this court for sticking to technicalities because this is supposed to protect the rights of the people. But, somehow in this country, it is being used to protect people who plunder this country,” he said.

“If you did not disclose, we have to depose. If you are not fit, you cannot sit.”

Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III also pounced on the issue of equal application of the law.

“The law that applies to Juan is the same law that applies to Renato,” he said in Filipino. “If you don’t want to disclose your real net worth, don’t enter government.” – By Cathy C. Yamsuan and Christian V. Esguerra

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