It started with the government wanting to oust a man from his post. President Benigno Aquino III used every opportunity to tell Filipinos that Renato Corona, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was a man undeserving of his post. Mainly, because Corona had accepted the post from former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo — an appointment that many of the previous administration’s critics claimed as an illegal, midnight appointment.
Mr. Aquino did not challenge Corona’s appointment. That was understandable, given his belief that the High Court was packed by loyalists of Mrs. Arroyo. The new President chose another Justice, Conchita Carpio-Morales, to administer his oath of office and later appointed her as Ombudsman. He never looked back, especially after the Court shot down his first executive order, creating a Truth Commission. It would have been chaired by one of their own, former Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. The SC said the Commission was selective in its mission.
The enmity between Messrs Aquino and Corona grew as the High Court slapped a temporary restraining order on the government’s attempt to impose, sans any proper case filed, a hold order on the former Chief Executive. The government ignored the TRO.
So, yes, this was all about one man. At least, that’s how it started. At least, that’s what we, the people, were told.
But even as accusation after accusation was hurled, it soon became clear that Corona was not the only one under trial. The speed by which House of Representatives impeached Corona was matched by the fast and furious pace of bungling of its prosecutors. This caused a dip in public interest in the impeachment trial.
Worse, with unethical conduct and tactics better suited to the venal government replaced, the prosecution and the land’s highest officials left people bewildered: Who were the bad guys here?
Indeed, as the Senate impeachment cast its historic 20-3 guilty vote, making Corona the first Supreme Court justice to be ordered stripped of his office, the judges poured an almost equal amount of scorn on the prosecution. They also confronted Mr. Aquino for throwing its weight behind the prosecution, the media for allowing itself to be manipulated by the contending parties. Some of the harshest words were received for good-governance activists who, perhaps believing the end justified their means, joined in the peddling of what some senators called illegally-acquired documents.
There were days the country stayed glued to their television sets, watching the senator-judges demolish the prosecution’s legal arguments. (Enrile said he felt “personally frustrated, terribly frustrated” by the weak case, which was built up only after charges were filed.) But as dazzling as the display of intellect was, some of the most brilliant showed the emotional quotient of hell hounds. Some judges also acted like paid consultants of the House of Representatives, picking up the ball dropped by the prosecution.
Voting “not guilty”, Sen. Joker Arroyo railed that the Senate court was being asked to pass “a bill of attainder”. He defined this as a “legislative act of convicting an accused of acts that were not offenses by the very measure by which he was condemned.”
Sen. Villar, who also raised his own experience at being on the receiving end of bad publicity, said:
“Ako ay nalulungkot din at sana hindi na mangyari sa mga darating na panahon, na ang iligal na pagkuha ng mga ebidensya ay parang normal o binabalewala natin. Napakahalaga po niyan sa ating sistema ng hustisya. Napakahalaga na ang isang ebidensya na hindi legal ang pagkuha ay hindi pwedeng tanggapin… At huwag na rin sanang maulit iyong walang pakundangan na paggamit ng mga ahensya ng gobyerno. Mahalaga rin po na mahalin natin ang kalayaan ng ating mga institusyon. Iyan po ay magpapalakas n gating demokrasya.” (I am saddened and hope that in the future we do not treat the illegal procurement of evidence as normal. That is of crucial importance to our democracy, that evidence illegally obtained are not accepted. And I hope we do not see a repeat of ruthless use of government agencies. It is important to love the independence of our institutions. That will strengthen our democracy._
“the indiscriminate and deliberate and illegal machinations of some parties who have been less than forthright with this court in presenting dubiously procured and misleading documents spread to media to influence court and public opinion…” He also bewailed “a penchant to engage in trial by publicity and use media to disseminate information or evidence to provoke or disrespect this court.”
Sen. Ralph Recto, a member of the ruling Liberal Party, described the prosecution’s case as “articles served half cooked instead of well done.” He also said the way they produced evidence “left a bad taste in the mouth.”
His own worst enemy
No matter the prosecution’s pratfalls, the 20-3 guilty verdict was a stunning blow to the Chief Justice. Failure to declare his correct Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net worth (SALN) was always the prosecution’s strongest case. Still, Corona’s lawyers admitted they had not expected so wide a margin.
Corona showed a startling, self-destructive streak. Why would anyone take a battle contained on one front and spread it to another? Activists had filed a case against him with the office of the Ombudsman. He could have played that out. But, irked by the leaked letter, he told his counsel to subpoena Carpio-Morales as a hostile witness. She came, with a powerpoint report, allegedly based on documents supplied by the Anti-Money Laundering Council.
Did the case filed by activists with the Ombudsman provoke the Batangeno’s macho pride? Did the initial bumbling by prosecution lawyers in the impeachment trial make the defense overconfident? A combination of both is at the root of Corona’s troubles. And then there’s hubris. Impunity will do that, see. Getting away once, twice, thrice… can lull one into believing it can be forever. As they say in basketball, the loudest jeers are reserved for those who dunk into the opponent’s goal.
But Corona did more than that. He throttled himself. He turned his great star turn into a moment of farce. He offered a waiver on the secrecy of his bank accounts. Then he ruined the gesture by demanding the 188 signatories of the impeachment complaint and pet peeve, Sen. Franklin Drilon, do the same. And he capped that with a walk out, later claiming to have suffered a drop in his blood sugar.
It doesn’t take a bar topnotcher to see through that. Had Corona offered the waiver unconditionally, at the start, we would all have patiently waited through a three hour performance. It featured another reprise of the unlikely Hacienda Luisita angle, a particularly nasty family feud and claims of an ordinary lifestyle alternating with boasts about family wealth. It wasn’t so much the tears — by all accounts, Corona is very close to his family. It was that he had priorities all wrong. And that, more than anything, raised public doubt into irreversible levels.
A chastened Corona would later return to offer an unconditional waiver. But hearts and minds had hardened. Neither the defense nor the prosecution bothered to call in AMLA officials. As Enrile stressed, while the waiver was laudable, truth would have been served better had he just submitted his bank documents to prove Carpio-Morales wrong.
The senators actually bent backwards for Corona. They chose to focus on his admission — four, not 82 dollar accounts, “just” $2.4 million and not $10 million; “only” P80 million instead of over a couple of hundred million pesos. But the figures were too large, and the violations so consistent through the years, for the senator-judges to dismiss.
In their guilty verdicts, the 20 senator judges stressed the following:
There is no conflict between the law on secrecy of foreign deposits and the law covering the disclosure of SALNs;
While banks and third parties are banned from revealing people’s dollar deposits, the account holder is free to share this information;
Corona’s tale of co-mingled funds goes against the natural grain of things — parents often leave their cash to children, not the other way around;and
The Constitution trumps special laws.
“How can one man use the same constitution which mandates full disclosure to hide his assets?” asked Sen. Teofisto Guingona III. “This is constitutional perversion in its ultimate form.”
“Half truths are no better than lies,” said Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who gave a higher figure on Corona’s undeclared wealth and punched holes into the facts offered up by the Chief Justice.
Sen. Pia Cayetano said Corona’s example, if allowed to pass, would set “a deadly precedent… that would allow any official to hide assets (behind the secrecy safeguards on foreign currency).”
“Kaya ba natin tanggapin… na ang $2.4 million pag nasa safety deposit box kailangan -declare pero pag convert sa dollar, hindi kailangan?” said Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano.
“The truthful disclosure of SALN is key fundamental … the centerpiece principle of democracy,” Sen. Loren Legarda pointed out. “Disclosure of SALN is the only window by which the public can judge whether we, as public officials, earn the public trust… it is not simply an administrative entitlement by officials… If we acquit, we would lift floodgates …. and lower the bar of public accountability.”
Enrile chastised the defense for allowing Corona to revisit a prosecution issue already disallowed by the Senate impeachment court. He stressed the Chief Justice was not being accused of amassing illegally-acquired wealth. But to all but three of the senator-judges, no reason existed on earth to justify why Corona had kept huge wealth under wraps. In the end, he gave the numbers needed to take him down.