Face-off at the Senate: CJ vs OMB

Rising to the challenge of several senators, Chief Justice (CJ) Renato C. Corona agreed to testify and bare to the Senate all his properties and assets and to explain why the nondisclosure or undervaluation of these properties and assets, especially his dollar and peso deposits, does not culpably violate the Constitution or betray public trust. And that neither do these undisclosed and undervalued assets constitute ill-gotten wealth.

OMB’s initial investigation. However, before doing so, he dared Ombudsman (OMB) Conchita Carpio Morales to testify ahead of him and to reveal under oath her initial finding that the CJ had amassed at least a “mind-boggling” $10 million, which is “purportedly grossly disproportionate to the [CJ’s] salary and other lawful income.” Without hesitation, the gutsy OMB confidently accepted the CJ’s dare.

The OMB’s confidence in immediately accepting the face-off with the CJ probably stems not only from the allegations of the three complaints but also from the results of her own initial investigation. Note that under Republic Act 6770, the OMB can turn to “any government agency for assistance and information.”

Also, the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of all public officials authorizes the OMB “to obtain and secure from all appropriate government agencies, including the Bureau of Internal Revenue, such documents that show [their] assets, liabilities, net worth, business interests and financial connections…”

Recall that two weeks ago, the OMB—acting on three separate complaints filed against the CJ and on her own initial investigation—wrote Corona a letter asking him to explain within 72 hours “several bank accounts in PSBank and several other banks … including those denominated in US dollars the aggregate value of which amounts to at least US $10” million.

Instead of answering the OMB’s letter, the CJ—through his lawyers’ media statements—flatly denied owning $10 million and questioned the OMB’s jurisdiction over him, arguing that only the House of Representatives could initiate impeachment proceedings and only the Senate had the power to try and remove him from his office.

OMB’s power over CJ. However, the Constitution (Art. XI, Sec. 13) grants the Office of the Ombudsman vast powers, functions and duties, among them, to “investigate on its own, or on complaint by any person, any act or omission of any public official, employee, office or agency, when such act or omission appears to be illegal, unjust, improper, or inefficient.”

Moreover, the Ombudsman Act of 1989 (RA 6770) specifically empowers the OMB “to investigate any serious misconduct in office allegedly committed by officials removable by impeachment (including the Chief Justice), for the purpose of filing a verified complaint for impeachment, if warranted” in the House of Representatives, which in turn is granted by the Constitution (Art. XI, Sec. 3) “the exclusive power to initiate all cases of impeachment.”

In addition, Sec. 15 of RA 6770 gives the OMB the duty “to investigate and initiate the proper action for the recovery of ill-gotten and/or unexplained wealth … and the prosecution of the parties involved therein,” and “to give priority to complaints filed against high-ranking government officials…”

In sum, the Constitution and the law mandate the OMB to investigate impeachable officials (like the President, the Vice President and the CJ) for the purpose of filing (1) impeachment charges against them; (2) civil cases for the recovery of ill-gotten wealth; and/or (3) criminal indictments for violation of antigraft and other penal statutes.

Fitness to be highest magistrate. To repeat, instead of answering the OMB’s letter on his alleged ill-gotten wealth including $10 million in several banks, the CJ turned the tables and asked the Senate to subpoena the OMB to explain why she is investigating him when there is already an ongoing impeachment trial.

By turning the tables on the OMB, the CJ—without conceding the OMB’s jurisdiction—probably hopes to put Morales on the defensive and to trip her into failing to substantiate her initial investigation on the $10 million.

This strategy will favor Corona only if the OMB fudges her Senate testimony. However, should she disclose prima facie evidence that the CJ has “at least” (repeat, at least) $10 million in deposits, this strategy would surely backfire and aggravate Corona’s already heavy burden of defending himself.

As I wrote in this space last May 6, the prosecution has established a prima facie case proving that the CJ has repeatedly omitted or undervalued some of his houses, condos, and peso and dollar deposits in PSBank. This prima facie prosecution evidence, coupled with the OMB’s investigation, if shown to be substantial, could make Corona’s legal position untenable and inexplicable, given the huge chasm between his legally known income and the putative value of his assets and deposits.

Aside from the prosecution’s and the OMB’s evidence, Corona—when he takes the witness stand—could be asked many nagging questions about his persona, including his role in the woeful Basa-Guidote saga. After all, impeachment is more political than legal. Facing the senator-judges, he cannot hide behind technicalities and legalities. Ultimately, he will have to demonstrate to the Senate and to our people that he possesses the high moral character, integrity, independence, probity and fitness to remain as the highest magistrate of the land.

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