Prima facie case

After a six-week recess, the Senate will resume Monday, May 7, the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona with the defense continuing the presentation of its evidence.

Though the impeachment complaint listed eight charges, denominated as “Articles of Impeachment,” the prosecution withdrew five of them.

Failure to disclose. Out of the remaining three articles, the prosecution had proven a prima facie case on at least one (Article II): that the respondent culpably violated the Constitution and betrayed public trust by his repeated failure to include some of his properties in his statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs).

In its order dated Jan. 27, 2012, the impeachment court ruled that the respondent’s failure to include certain assets in his SALNs “is substantially and inextricably linked” to his constitutional and legal duty to “completely, truthfully and faithfully declare his assets, liabilities and net worth.” Citing Supreme Court decisions, the Senate added that undisclosed assets show betrayal of public trust when they are disproportionate to known legitimate income.

By opting for a full-blown trial, the defense may also have conceded the prima facie validity of the prosecution evidence. Otherwise, if it believed that the said evidence was insufficient, or proved merely a non-impeachable offense, it would not have wasted the Senate’s valuable time listening to its countervailing evidence. It would have rested its case and asked for judgment on the basis of the allegedly “weak” prosecution complaint and evidence.

As things stand now, if not overturned by the defense, the evidence on this one article would be sufficient to justify Corona’s ouster from the highest judicial office.

US dollar deposits. Mainly, the prosecution evidence includes several undeclared or undervalued houses and condos and peso deposits, the totality of which appear to be manifestly disproportionate to Corona’s legal income as shown by his income tax returns.

In addition, Corona admitted owning dollar deposits which he publicly agreed to open “in due time” or, more emphatically, “next week.” Had it not been for a temporary restraining order (TRO) issued by the Supreme Court, the Senate itself would have opened the five dollar accounts identified by PSBank president Pascual Garcia III.

Of late, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales had asked the Chief Justice to explain the “information that there are several bank accounts in PSBank and several other banks in your name, including those denominated in US dollars the aggregate value of which amounts to at least US$10” million. Corona’s lawyers flatly denied that the Chief Justice owned the $10-million deposits and challenged the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction to investigate him.

Note that the Ombudsman gave Corona 72 hours, showing that she was following Sec. 26 of the Ombudsman Law (RA 6770) that grants due process to respondent public officials. If the explanation is satisfactory, the Ombudsman may dismiss the case. If not, she may continue the inquiry and file a civil case for forfeiture of unexplained wealth, or for impeachable officials, file, per Sec. 22, “a verified complaint for impeachment, if warranted” in the House of Representatives.

Back to the current impeachment trial. Recall that in its order dated March 21, 2012, the Senate—while respecting the Supreme Court TRO—allowed the prosecution to present “evidence on the dollar account/s of Chief Justice Renato Corona should the Supreme Court rule that the presentation of evidence of such bank accounts before this Court will not violate the provisions of RA No. 6425.”

But whether the Supreme Court allows the presentation of such evidence or not, the existence—to repeat—of the five dollar accounts in PSBank has been admitted. Only the exact amounts deposited need to be shown. On her part, Morales—to repeat also—wrote that Corona has several dollar accounts not only in PSBank but also in several other banks “the aggregate value of which amounts to at least US$10” million.

Consequently, to overturn the prosecution’s prima facie case, it is to Corona’s best interest to explain at the soonest possible time the admitted five accounts in PSBank and, though legally not part of the submitted evidence, the “at least $10” million mentioned by Morales.

Willfully suppressed evidence. Under the Rules of Court (Rule 131, Sec. 3), “evidence willfully suppressed would be adverse if produced.” As stated earlier, the Supreme Court issued a TRO barring any inquiry into the dollar accounts of Corona; however, the said TRO was addressed to the Senate and the prosecution but not to the defense.

Thus, nothing prevents the Chief Justice, as the bank depositor, from giving his written consent to the bank inquiry. In fact, he has repeatedly assured our people in several media statements that he would explain his dollar accounts, despite the TRO. Should he fail or neglect to do so, the presumption of willfully suppressed evidence may apply to him. So, it would be to his best interest legally and politically to fulfill his promise to bare all his dollar accounts.

Beyond the Senate, the Court of Public Opinion appears likewise to have been persuaded by the prosecution’s prima facie evidence. The latest SWS poll, conducted on March 10-13, shows that 63 percent of our people are convinced that Corona has “hidden wealth based on the undeclared money and assets in his SALN.” Only 12 percent were unconvinced, while 24 percent were undecided.

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