GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/6 June) – A week after the final vote, we glance back and see the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona as a drama with the plot of the tragedy – Corona the tragic hero not dying but only going down by his “tragic faults”. However, as the impeachment trial ends in Corona’s ironic conviction, the trial of the Aquino III government begins: What for really was Corona’s impeachment?
In his obsession to acquit himself, Chief Justice Renato C. Corona bungled his chances and got convicted. That’s the irony, the contradiction; the paradox, the unbelievable but true. This Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, presiding judge of the Impeachment Court, portrayed when he explained his “Guilty Vote”. The prosecution’s closing arguments focused on this irony and paradox, not on their own weak evidence.
The fatal blunders were as much those of the defense as of Corona. Until the Defense revived the dead issue on Corona’s ill-gotten wealth and introduced evidence purportedly to deny the charge, Corona was on the way to acquittal.
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The prosecution rested its case after presenting evidence on three of the eight Articles of Impeachment – II, III and VII. Of the three, Enrile said, “I have always believed the case for the Prosecution and the Defense will rise or fall on Article II.” Article II specified three charges in Paragraphs 2.2, 2.3 and 2.4.
For “being based on mere ‘suspicion”, on so-called ‘reports’, rather than on factual allegations”, the Impeachment Court barred Paragraph 2.4: “Respondent is suspected of having accumulated ill-gotten wealth, acquiring assets of high values and keeping bank accounts with huge deposits (among others, a 300-sq meter apartment in The Fort in Taguig).
For “justifiable and legal grounds”, relying “on the Supreme Court’s procedural and policy guidelines governing [the disclosure of the SALNs of the justices] as embodied in a [Court] Resolution promulgated way back in 1989”, Corona cannot be faulted for “failing to disclose to the public his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth as required by the Constitution” – the charge in Paragraph 2.2 of Article II. Corona was virtually acquitted of this charge.
That eventually left Corona’s fate hanging on just one vital charge — that in Paragraph 2.3: “Some of the properties of Respondent are not included in his declaration of his assets, liabilities, and net worth, in violation the anti-graft and corrupt practices act.” Mathematically, Corona’s burden had been reduced to one-third of one-eighth.
Even in this charge the prosecution evidence was weak. And weaker still was its evidence for Articles II and VII. At this point, as Enrile revealed during an ANC (ABS-CBN News Channel) interview last May 30, three senator-judges were inclined to acquit Corona; nine to convict; and nine [obviously, not including himself and another] still undecided –the potential swing votes.
But the Defense and Corona misjudged their case. While the Court had already “killed” the issue of ill-gotten wealth – in fact, Enrile had reiterated a number of times on record that “Corona does not stand accused of having amassed any ill-gotten wealth before this Impeachment Court” – they revived it.
Perhaps they were rattled by the persistence of the charge in media, the court of public opinion. The latest and the most serious were the reports of the case pending before the Ombudsman charging Corona of having $10 million in the banks. The issue that the Court had killed had remained alive in the media to hound Corona and his defense team; they could not ignore this.
Yet, the imponderable was this: Presenting at the Impeachment Court evidence to prove Corona had no ill-gotten wealth had become irrelevant – fueling rather than quenching the fire in media and feeding two birds rather than killing them at the same time. How could lawyers so brilliant err?
The strategy of the Defense must have been this: Kill the ill-gotten wealth charge in the media by exposing its main root at the Impeachment Court. So, the Defense presented the Ombudsman as its hostile witness. That was the turning point – a winning case tumbling down to disaster.
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, a newly retired justice of the Supreme Court, had with her the report of the Anti-Money Laundering Council showing Corona’s 82 dollar accounts in different banks with $10 to $12 million “transactional” balance from 2004 to early 2012. The weighty evidence brought down the roof on the Defense and Corona.
As observed by many, the Defense gambled on their belief that the Ombudsman had no solid evidence yet that early of her investigation of the three complaints filed against Corona. Senator Edgardo Angara surmised that the defense “lawyers wanted Morales to disprove the news reports – that she did not have evidence on the Chief Justices’s $10M bank deposits”. Her testimony would acquit Corona both at the Impeachment Court and the court of public opinion.
But this was not to be so. Of Morales’ evidence, Enrile said: She “presented a report based on documents so detailed – a myriads of details. No mind, even Einstein’s, can invent the details covered by those transactions. A legal mind or a financial mind could not concoct or invent the contents of those documents and the numbers and the transactions that happened over a period of eight years”.
As required by law, banks reported Corona’s and similarly circumstanced other bank transactions to AMLC; on request, AMLC furnished the Ombudsman the report which the Commission on Audit analyzed to arrive at the “transactional” balance which is different from actual balance. The evidence withstood arguments of technicality [The report was not authenticated.] or of illegality [The report was obtained without court order.] Only Corona could refute it.
On May 22, Corona appeared before the Impeachment Court to testify in his defense. The Court permitted him to give preliminary remarks before direct examination – a privilege never given to a witness in any court of law. He arrogated unto himself the right to use the courtesies extended to him to testify as he wished – without direct questions from his counsel, ignoring established court procedures for almost three hours.
What did Corona tell the Court and the television audience nationwide?
He disagreed with the AMLC report but admitted having $2.4 million in four U.S. Dollar accounts and P80 million in three Peso accounts and lavishly explained how he had built his dollar accounts and the nature of his peso accounts.
By his own interpretation of the foreign currency deposit secrecy law, he averred he was prohibited from disclosing his dollar deposits so he did not disclose these in his SALNs. Because the P80 million was “co-mingled funds” – his own and those of his wife and children – he did not include it in his SALN reports.
In explaining how he had accumulated his dollar and peso savings, he disproved the dead issue of ill-gotten wealth [Paragraph 2.4]. However, he strengthened the weak evidence of the prosecution in the non-disclosure charge [Paragraph 2.3] by legally justifying the non-disclosure of these funds in his SALNs. That was the irony.
He lengthily indulged in the irrelevant – accusing President Aquino III as his vindictive persecutor in conspiracy with the Liberal Party House representatives and their allies and the media. He ignored the fact that his hurt feelings had no place in the record.
What else did he do?
In open court, he signed a waiver to allow the concerned banks to allow the prosecution and the Impeachment Court to scrutinize his dollar deposits. However, he imposed one condition for the waiver: the issuance of the same waiver over their own bank deposits by Sen. Franklin Drilon and the 188 House Representatives who signed the Articles of Impeachment.
Then he let the indulgent Court and television audience know and feel his authority. To end his lengthy testimony, he imperiously announced, “Now the Chief Justice of the Republic of the Philippines wishes to be excused.” Without waiting for acknowledgment from the presiding senator-judge, he walked out of the court room followed by his wife, children and aides – their cars, with engines running, waiting at the courtyard.
That precipitated the turning point! Presiding Senator-Judge Enrile asserted the authority of the Impeachment Court. He ordered the Senate Sergeant at Arms to close all Senate exits and have Corona brought back to the Court. Back to Court in a wheelchair an hour later, Corona looked sick, shamefaced, chastised.
Whatever goodwill and gains he had reaped from his testimony vanished. Enrile and the senator-judges were insulted. He abused the courtesies and indulgence of the Court; he ordered himself excused. Proper court decorum called for him to ask his counsel to seek permission from the Court for him to be excused for whatever reason and wait for the Court to acknowledge.
The Defense apologized. But this and the alibi of Corona’s sudden sickness did not stop Enrile from dressing down the Defense and Corona. He ordered Corona to be back on the following day, Wednesday, for the cross-examination and for the Defense to submit its evidence after that. He set the closing arguments on the following Monday and the voting in open court by the senator-judges to follow immediately or on Tuesday.
The end did not bode well for Corona and the Defense. They must have sensed the impending doom – the disaster – as the drama neared its dénouement.
(To Be Continued)
(“Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently honored Mr. Diaz with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)