Gut issues

Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada wryly remarked that he almost fell asleep listening to the defense’s first witness, Rep. Toby Tiangco, because what he expected to hear was the explanation for the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona. He was referring to the alleged omissions, apparent undervaluations, and seeming inconsistencies between Corona’s SALNs and his newly known properties and bank deposits.

Gut legal issue. Senators Vicente Sotto III, Francis Pangilinan, Panfilo Lacson and Edgardo Angara, in separate interviews, agreed that Tiangco’s testimony was “irrelevant.” The clincher was Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s “They should go directly to the substance of Article 2.” I concur that the explanation sought by Senator Estrada is the gut legal issue in Article 2.

On this gut legal issue, recall that in its resolution on Jan. 27, the impeachment court held that “respondent, as a public official,” has “the duty … to completely, truthfully and faithfully declare his assets, liabilities and net worth…” Consequently, a “less than full and faithful disclosure” may open him to sanctions.

The sanctions include those found in the Anti-Graft Law (Republic Act No. 3019), cited in the resolution, saying a public official “found to have acquired during his incumbency, whether in his name or in the name of other persons, an amount of property and/or money manifestly out of proportion to his salary and to his other lawful income…” may be dismissed.

The resolution also cited RA 1379, which provides: “Whenever any public officer or employee has acquired during his incumbency an amount of property which is manifestly out of proportion to his salary as such public officer or employee and to his other lawful income and the income from legitimately acquired property, said property shall be presumed prima facie to have been unlawfully acquired.”

For its part, the Supreme Court has dismissed from the service several public officials found guilty of omitting or misdeclaring entries in their SALNs. I discussed these cases in my Feb. 26 column and will not repeat them now.

Formally admitted. Suffice it to say that during the past two months, the prosecution – probably aware of the above laws and cases – patiently presented testimonial and documentary evidence showing that respondent acquired multimillion-peso assets and bank deposits that were either not declared or underdeclared in his SALNs, which, when taken together, appear to be manifestly out of proportion to his legitimate income. Significantly, the Senate has formally admitted these damaging pieces of evidence.

In its resolution on March 6 denying Corona’s motion to suppress his bank deposits as evidence, the Senate emphatically linked his SALNs to the bank deposits, ruling: “The objective of the court was to compare the bank balances in the said bank accounts with the cash and investments declared by the Chief Justice in his SALNs from 2005 to 2010 so as to determine if the declarations of cash and investments in the SALNs were truthful, complete and accurate.”

The clear message is that the explanation demanded by Senator Estrada should be heeded. And if the explanation is unsatisfactory, respondent may be sanctioned pursuant to applicable laws. To be fair, let me quickly add that the defense heeded the senators’ warnings. On the next days, it presented evidence tending to explain the discrepancies and inadequacies in the SALNs. I will not comment on the adequacy and cogency of the defense’s evidence till its full ventilation.

Gut policy issue. Beyond the legalities, the gut policy issue – the respondent’s fitness to remain in his office – is actively debated outside the impeachment court. Aware of this underlying political reality, both the prosecution and the defense participate in media briefings, interviews, tweets and Internet debates.

Corona himself went on a media blitz, asserting he was willing to testify and to explain the omissions and misdeclarations in his SALNs. Specifically, he volunteered to open last week his dollar deposits. He branded as “lies” the revelations of Ana Basa and Sr. Flory Basa impugning his character and fitness as chief magistrate. He also vowed to respect the Senate, humbly saying: “When I submitted myself to the Senate from the start I trusted our senators, that they will do their duty. Whatever verdict they will have, I will accept.”

Despite these solemn avowals, Corona’s lawyers said – in response to Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV – that they have as yet found no necessity for the Chief Justice to testify or to open his dollar deposits. Instead, they have repeatedly asked for the summary dismissal of the case, first at the start of the trial and the latest, prior to the presentation of their evidence. In fact, they also filed in the Supreme Court a petition on Feb. 8 and a supplemental petition on Feb. 13 to nullify the impeachment complaint and the entire Senate proceedings.

While Corona tries to convince the public of his readiness to testify, to open his dollar accounts, to submit to the Senate and to accept whatever be its verdict, his lawyers seem to avow the opposite. In fine, they insist that the Senate proceedings are void from the beginning and should be junked. How our people and their alter egos, the senators, will view this dichotomy or conflict between the political and legal postures of the respondent and his lawyers remains to be seen.

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