CORONA FOUND GUILTY-A A +A
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
MANILA (Updated) -- The Senate impeachment court voted Tuesday to remove from office Chief Justice Renato Corona, with 20 senator-judges finding him guilty of betraying public trust and committing culpable violation of the Constitution.
At least two-thirds of the Senate membership or 16 votes are needed to convict Corona, while only eight votes to acquit him. Twenty-three senators, including Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, handed down their verdict Tuesday.
"The Senate, sitting as an impeachment court, having tried Renato C. Corona, Chief Justice of the supreme court, upon three articles of impeachment charged against him by the House of Representatives, by a guilty vote of 20 senators representing at least two-thirds of all members of the Senate, has found him guilty as charged under Article 2 of the said articles of impeachment. Now, therefore, be it adjudged, that Renato C. Corona is hereby convicted of the charge against him in Article 2 of the articles of impeachment. So ordered," the Senate decision read.
With the majority vote, Corona can no longer appeal the decision of the tribunal. This is contrary to the statement of defense lead counsel Serafin Cuevas on Sunday that Corona's camp is planning to bring the case to the Supreme Court if Corona is convicted.
The decision Tuesday all boiled down to the arguments presented by the defense and prosecution panels on Article 2 – Corona's non-disclosure of his assets and net worth.
In Article 2, Corona was accused of deliberately concealing some properties and cash deposits in the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) since his appointment as magistrate in 2002.
It was the center of the debate between the prosecution and the defense for months as both camps exchanged views whether non-disclosure of dollar accounts and commingled peso funds are enough to kick out an impeachable official such as High Court justices.
The 20 senator-judges who voted for Corona's conviction are Edgardo Angara, Alan Peter Cayetano, Pia Cayetano, Franklin Drilon, Francis Escudero, Jinggoy Estrada, Teofisto Guingona III, Gregorio Honasan II, Panfilo Lacson, Manuel Lapid, Loren Legarda, Sergio Osmeña III, Francis Pangilinan, Aquilino Pimentel III, Ralph Recto, Ramon Revilla Jr., Antonio Trillanes IV, Manny Villar, Vicente Sotto III and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile.
Revilla cast the 16th vote in favor of the prosecution panel.
"In the end, I arrive with the conclusion that through his own direct admission, the Chief Justice failed to properly disclose all of his assets in his SALN. This, therefore, has necessary consequences that attach to the position he holds in trust," Revilla said.
Those who found Corona not guilty were Joker Arroyo, Miriam Defensor Santiago, and Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
The impeachment trial concluded Monday, May 28, with oral arguments between the defense and prosecution panel.
In its argument on Monday, the prosecution zeroed in on Corona’s interpretation of Republic Act (RA) 6426 or the Foreign Currency Deposit Act.
Corona argued that RA 6426 guarantees absolute confidentiality of dollar deposits. He himself confirmed, though, that he has US$2.4 million accumulated over the past 35 years.
He also admitted that he has at least P80.7 million of commingled funds in his three peso accounts. Almost half of the amount, he added, is owned by his wife's family corporation -- the Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc. (BGEI).
But Iloilo Representative Niel Tupas, chief prosecutor, argued that no "amount of denial" and no "lame excuse" can stand against the best evidence itself – Corona's filed SALNs from 2002 to 2010.
Tupas said Corona's admission that he did not declare his peso and dollar accounts led to the truth that he lied about his assets in his SALN to conceal his enormous wealth.
"It has led us to the truth that his loyalty does not lie with the Filipino people. On the whole, it has led us to the truth that he is in public service not to serve his country but to serve his own ends," Tupas added.
Majority of the senator-judges who voted for Corona's conviction agreed on this argument Tuesday.
Senate President Enrile even said "Corona was still duty-bound under our laws to declare these deposits in his SALN."
He disagreed with the Chief Justice's explanation that he did not declare his assets because peso accounts are commingled funds and he is not required to report dollar accounts.
Enrile said RA 6426 can't be interpreted as exception to constitutional command. "I regret the highest magistrate no less would think otherwise," he said.
"I maintain constitutional principle of public accountability overrides absolute confidentiality in Foreign Currency Deposit law," he said. "If we accept Corona's reason of confidentiality, can we expect a SALN from other government officials that is accurate? I don't think so."
The defense panel, he added, failed to introduce evidence such as bank documents that would back up the testimony of Corona.
Enrile even told the defense panel on Monday's oral arguments that there is no secrecy law in this country that prohibits or inhibits the depositor from revealing his or her own deposit.
"We are forgetting that the law allows exposure of foreign currency deposits if the depositor himself would do it," he said on Monday.
The presiding officer, meanwhile, thanked both the prosecution and defense panels for their "untiring effort in participating in ferreting out the truth" in the impeachment trial. He noted, however, his frustration on the hasty crafting of the impeachment charges against Corona.
In explaining his vote, Senator Angara, the father of prosecution spokesperson Sonny Angara, said there was a "willful and deliberate omission" on the part of Corona to conceal his assets, noting that the defense panel's arguments seemed "hollow" and "not acceptable."
"I may grant the CJ (Chief Justice) plea of honest mistake of judgment but given his broad experience in public law…this willful and deliberate admission together with magnitude of amounts involved amounts to culpable violation," he said.
Defense lawyers previously asked Angara to inhibit from the impeachment trial.
Senator Alan Peter Cayetano based his vote on Corona's interpretation of RA 6426.
"I can't accept that a public official can get away with his failure to declare his assets just because of a simple ploy," he said. "If you are not fit, you cannot sit as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court."
Senator Pia Cayetano echoed the sentiment of his brother, saying while corrections are allowed in the SALN law, the omission of $2.4 million is not "minor."
"Once the people's trust is gone, the official should step down," she said.
Drilon, a close ally of President Benigno Aquino III, said the Chief Justice can no longer stay for another minute in the High Tribunal for knowingly and deliberately filing inaccurate SALNs.
"He chose the path of concealment. He has lost his moral fitness. He cannot be Chief Justice," he said.
In explaining his vote, Drilon cited a Supreme Court decision on the case of a court interpreter who was dismissed for not declaring a market stall.
This was the same ruling cited by Senator Legarda when she voted to convict Corona, stressing that "we are all guided by the equal application of the law."
Senator Osmeña also used the same ruling when he rendered a guilty verdict on the Chief Justice.
Senator Escudero, for his part, said he cannot simply accept the interpretation of the chief magistrate on RA 6426, stressing that this is not in conflict with the SALN law as Corona earlier claimed.
"I am saddened that I cannot agree with the position of the Chief Justice because for me, the law is clear. This is not conflict with any other law…If you do not want to declare your assets, then you have no right to occupy a post in government," he added.
Pimentel, who replaced resigned Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri, also found Corona's interpretation of RA 6426 "ridiculous," saying the SC official relied too much on the confidential provision provided in the said law.
"In case of conflict, the Constitution prevails over RA 6426," Pimentel said.
Estrada, whose father was also subjected to an impeachment trial in 2001, said he was not convinced by the arguments laid out by the defense lawyers considering that the Chief Justice holds a higher responsibility for accountability.
Guingona, also a member of the ruling Liberal Party, also voted to convict Corona in Article 2 of the impeachment complaint.
"How can one use the same Constitution [that] mandates full disclosure to justify concealment of millions of dollars in his personal bank accounts? This is constitutional perversion in its ultimate form," he said.
Senator Honasan, for his part, called on the Chief Justice to "step down from the pedestal where he was installed by the nation and walk among the ordinary people."
Lapid, who explained his vote in Tagalog, said it was deputy lead prosecutor Rodolfo Fariñas's presentation during the oral arguments Monday that swayed him to vote against Corona.
"Awang-awa ako sa kanya. Akala ko totoo sinasabi niya. Hindi pala. Mas pinaniwalaan ko pa si Congressman Fariñas sa PowerPoint niya. Ginamit ko lang ang aking konsensiya (I pity Corona. I thought he was telling the truth. I was wrong. I was convinced by the PowerPoint presentation of Representative Rodolfo Fariñas)," the actor-turned-politician, who was unable to finish his studies, said.
Senator Pangilinan, also a close ally of President Aquino, said there was a "systematic concealment of wealth" on the part of Corona.
Recto, a member of the Liberal Party, said that while "there is no such thing as a SALN so statistically perfect that it is precise to the last decimal point," Corona's undeclared cash, however, was 50 times more on what was declared in his SALNs.
Senators Sotto and Trillanes -- the 17th and 18th senator-judges to cast their vote -- also voted for Corona's conviction, stressing it is in the interest of the country to have him removed from office.
Villar, for his part, believed that dollar deposits need to be declared in SALNs. Villar is the richest member of the Senate.
"Naniniwala akong mabuting tao si Corona pero dito sa FCDU account, nagkamali siya dito (I believe that Corona is a good man, but he made a mistake when he used FCDU law as defense)," Villar said.
But Senator Arroyo, who voted for acquittal, said he "cannot imagine removing a Chief Justice on account of a SALN."
"Together, we are one step in violating the Constitution. This is not justice -- political or legal," he said.
Senator Santiago, who was her usually fiery self, stressed that omission in the SALN does not amount to culpable violation of the Constitution and not an impeachable offense.
"Omission of good faith in SALN carries a light penalty. The law even allows corrections, thus it is not impeachable," she said.
Santiago also slammed the lawmaker-complainants who, she said, may have also been dishonest in declaring their assets and net worth.
"If the Chief Justice loses here, does that mean that those who won are honest? If every one of us then is honest, why is the Philippines all the time, why are we ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the whole world?" Santiago said.
Marcos, who also voted for Corona's acquittal, found the Chief Justice's testimony to have sufficiently addressed the accusations against him.
The senator-judges did not vote Tuesday on the two remaining articles of impeachment -- Article 3 and Article 7 -- since under the rules, the respondent is already convicted if at least 16 senators find him guilty in just one article of impeachment.
Article 3 accused the Chief Justice of losing his neutrality by discussing cases with litigants and for flip-flopping in some final and executory cases, while Article 7 hit Corona for his supposed partiality toward former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when he led the Supreme Court last November to allow his ex-boss seek medical treatment abroad, respectively.
Corona is the first public official to be handed down a judgment by the impeachment tribunal after 43 trial days.
Although it was former President Joseph Estrada who was the first official of the country to be impeached, a decision was not reached after he was ousted through the popular uprising, also known as the People Power Revolution.
The House of Representatives also impeached former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. Days before her trial, Gutierrez resigned from her post. She has since been replaced by former Supreme Court associate justice Conchita Carpio-Morales.
After being appointed as Chief Justice in 2010, Corona's date of retirement would have been October 15, 2018. (Kathrina Alvarez/Sunnex)