Bank deposits as evidence

Ban deposits are sacred. Under Republic Act No. 1405, “All deposits of whatever nature … are … absolutely confidential and may not be examined, inquired or looked into … except (1) when the examination is … specifically authorized by the Monetary Board … or (2) when the examination is made by an independent auditor hired by the bank to conduct its regular audit … or (3) upon written permission of the depositor, or (4) in cases of impeachment, or (5) upon order of a competent court in cases of bribery or dereliction of duty of public officials, or (6) in cases where the money deposited or invested is the subject matter of the litigation.”

Peso deposits. Clearly, impeachment is an exception to bank secrecy. Thus, the Senate, acting as an impeachment court, subpoenaed Philippine Savings Bank and Bank of the Philippine Islands officials to bare the deposit accounts of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona. In compliance, both banks divulged Corona’s peso deposits.

Disagreeing with the compliance, Corona’s lawyers filed a motion in the impeachment court to suppress the use of the peso deposits as evidence, arguing that the deposits were covered by the legal rule known as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” They alleged that the impeachment court subpoenaed the Corona bank records on the basis of a purported signature specimen card illegally leaked to the prosecutors.

Coined by US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and subsequently adopted by our Supreme Court, this rule holds that “once the primary source (the ‘tree’) is shown to have been unlawfully obtained, any secondary or derivative evidence (the ‘fruit’) derived from it is also inadmissible.” (People vs Alicando, Dec. 12, 1995)

Example: If the police conduct a search without a valid search warrant (the tree), the illegal drugs found as a result of the search (the fruit) cannot be used to convict the accused. Absent any other evidence, the accused would be acquitted even if they may have possessed, used or dealt with the illegal drugs found in their house.

In the present impeachment case, the Senate refused to apply the rule because “bank secrecy laws do not bar the admission of illegally obtained bank records” and because the rule applies only if the original evidence (the specimen signature card) was illegally obtained “by the government or its agents … and there is no evidence that it was done by the government.”

Subsequently, Corona publicly said that the source of the leaked documents purporting to be his specimen card (the tree) “could have come only from the PSBank.” This explains why he closed three peso accounts there on Dec. 12 last year, the day he was impeached. If indeed Corona knew it was the bank, not the government, that illegally leaked the specimen signature card, I wonder why his lawyers still filed the motion to suppress.

Dollar deposits. Instead of revealing the dollar accounts of Corona, PSBank applied for and secured from the Supreme Court a temporary restraining order (TRO) barring the disclosure of his dollar deposits, claiming that under another law, Republic Act No. 6426, foreign currency deposits cannot be examined, inquired or looked into, except in only one instance: “upon the written permission of the depositor.”

Despite this single statutory exception, the Supreme Court – even without the depositor’s written permission – has allowed in at least two cases (Salvacion vs Central Bank, Aug. 21, 1997, and China Banking vs Court of Appeals, Dec. 18, 2006) the examination of foreign currency deposits “to prevent the perpetuation of an injustice.”

For the same reason, the Senate explained that it did not gravely abuse its discretion in ordering the examination of the dollar accounts, even without the written permission of Corona, to prevent an injustice to the Filipino people, and to uphold the constitutional principle of public accountability. It argued: “The statutory rule on absolute confidentiality must yield to CJ Corona’s clear constitutional obligation to fully declare and publicly disclose his assets, liabilities and net worth.”

Explanation needed. The PSBank’s petition is still pending in the Supreme Court, yet Corona, a few days ago, promised over national television that he would bare his dollar accounts, saying: “Whether or not there will be a TRO from the Supreme Court, I said I will open up at the right time and that right time is next week when we will start presenting our evidence. I have always said that there is no problem with my dollar deposit because I can explain it.”

Beyond the impeachment debate, Corona indeed needs to explain the discrepancies between his declarations in his statements of assets, liabilities and net worth and his newly known condos, bank deposits (whether in pesos or in dollars) and other assets. After all, PSBank president Pascual Garcia, while refusing to disclose details, admitted that the five dollar accounts pointed out by Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile belonged to the chief.

Truly, Corona is correct. After the prosecution has rested, now is his turn to explain. He should be given every opportunity to do so. He has to face, not just the impeachment court, but the nation as well. For he will be judged not merely on the basis of legal hermeneutics but on a much larger perspective of what is best for the country. Consequently, in all fairness, he should be given the chance to show, beyond mere formalities and legalities, that he has the fitness, integrity and moral ascendancy worthy of the highest judicial office in the land.

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