MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/24 May) – In his appearance on Tuesday at the Senate sitting as an impeachment court, Chief Justice Renato Corona sought to reverse the tide of public opinion in his favor by delivering scathing remarks against his perceived enemies, heaping insinuations that the case against him was motivated by a desire for vengeance. At the center of his tirade was President Benigno Aquino III, who he accused of using the constitutional process to get back at him after the Supreme Court ruled to distribute the Hacienda Luisita to its farm workers under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.
The allusion however to the Hacienda Luisita ruling as the alleged motive behind the impeachment was the only strong point in Corona’s three and half an hour statement cum testimony. It may have touched the hearts of the beneficiary-workers of the sugar estate owned by the President’s family on the mother side. But this argument has been lost in the web of other allegations that have been bolstered largely by last-minute miscalculations of the respondent’s defense lawyers.
If not for the defense’s miscue, specifically their having asked the impeachment court to summon Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales to testify on allegations that Corona had amassed illegal wealth, the Chief Justice would have gotten better chances of being acquitted. Worse, they made the Ombudsman testimony a precondition for their client’s appearance. It was a gamble that went in the prosecution’s favor.
Caught in their own trap, the defense lawyers were left with no choice but to offer Corona as witness in his own trial. It was a no-win situation for the embattled chief magistrate. He had previously vowed to bare all, thus his refusal to appear would be interpreted as an act of evasion. On the other hand, a single loophole in his testimony could open up a can of worms.
This dilemma explains Corona’s behavior at the Senate on Tuesday. While in effect submitting to the jurisdiction of the impeachment court, he did so in a half-hearted manner by staging a walkout so as to prevent his narrative testimony from being refuted in the aborted cross-examination and questioning by the senator-judges. Like in the case of his undisclosed bank accounts, the Chief Justice had not wanted his own version of circumstances surrounding the trial to be put under the lens. He would not give the prosecutors the pleasure of demolishing in open court his statements that mainly resorted to ad hominem and appeal to emotion.
That is why when he had finished his presentation Corona declared: “The Chief Justice of the Republic of the Philippines wishes to be excused.” He was not asking permission, he was flaunting the majesty of his position. He made the declaration thinking perhaps that his prolonged statement had achieved the purpose of negating the allegations against him.
Granting his statement had worked wonders as intended, a cross-examination would have negated such gains. For one, he left hanging the real picture of his dollar accounts, after admitting – rather grudgingly – that such accounts did exist, although he said there were only four accounts and not eighty-two as testified by the Ombudsman. He also refuted claims by the same official that he had between $10 and $12 million in the bank(s), saying he assembled a team of accountants who allegedly found errors in the computation presented by Carpio-Morales.
Corona’s testimony on his dollar accounts did not hit the proverbial nail on the head. The prosecution did not question the number of accounts and the actual amount but the fact that these financial assets were not disclosed in his statements of assets, liabilities and net worth. Moreover, he need not get the services of accountants if he knew how much he had, one thing he withheld from the impeachment court. Did he only have $9.5 million? $9 million? Or maybe just $1million? The impeachment court and the people were left guessing.
Aware of these weak spots in his testimony, Corona attempted a stunt as a way out. He offered to submit a waiver on his dollar accounts, but ONLY IF the 188 House members who signed the impeachment complaint and Senator Franklin Drilon would sign waivers too.
Sadly for him, the trick backfired. It only cemented perceptions that he will never divulge his money in the banks which is now the subject of an illegal wealth complaint filed before the Ombudsman. In fact, in the earlier part of his statement Corona already hinted he would not give in to demands for disclosure, arguing that Republic Act 6713, the SALN Law, does not do away with the secrecy of foreign currency accounts as provided for in RA 6426.
At best, the seeming contradictions between these laws remain debatable. But in a political arena like the impeachment court who will dare go against the force of public opinion? Those who do so better prepare themselves to ride the political equivalent of a wheelchair. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno writes mainly on the environment, human rights and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)