Impeachment turns nasty

Leandro DD coronelLeandro DD coronel
MANILA

Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment here has taken a nasty turn. President Benigno Aquino III and Corona have stooped low, calling each other names.

In an ugly retort to Mr. Aquino’s recent attacks against him, Corona urged the President to disclose his own statement of assets. Worse, Corona challenged Aquino to also disclose his psychological profile. The psycho dig at Mr. Aquino is a take-off from campaign black propaganda hurled against candidate Aquino in the 2010 presidential election, implying that his head isn’t properly screwed in place.

At issue at the impeachment trial is the Chief Justice’s fitness to be the head magistrate of the land and administrator of the judiciary. Principal among the issues against him are his honesty, integrity and impartiality as a justice. He’s charged with lying in the requisite statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) by not fully disclosing all of his wealth, partiality toward ex-President Gloria Arroyo (who is facing several graft and abuse of power charges), and manipulating the decision-making at the high court.

President Aquino has been vocal in his criticism of Corona from the day the latter was appointed by then-President Arroyo as chief justice. The appointment was made during a period banning such action by an outgoing president (Mrs. Arroyo), an act that then-presidential candidate Benigno Aquino attacked bitterly, swearing to not recognize Corona as chief justice. Aquino even showed his displeasure by not asking Corona to swear him in as President and instead broke tradition by choosing a senior associate justice of the high court to do the honors.

And so, it’s been four weeks into Corona’s impeachment trial as of this writing. The hearings have been tedious, mainly because of a lot of preliminary processes like introduction and marking of evidence, every one of which has sparked strident debate among opposing counsel. The petty intramurals have delayed the proceedings, but legal observers say the objections and counter objections are necessary in a legal proceeding. Meanwhile, the televiewing public, and even some of the protagonists in the court, are having a big yawn.

But it hasn’t all been ennui-inducing technicalities. So far, the prosecution has been able to show that Corona has been dishonest about his assets. The prosecutors have been able to coax information from witnesses that revealed several bank accounts in Corona’s name, as well as expensive real estate properties. And these aren’t fully reflected or are undervalued in his SALN, a document that is required to be filed by all government officials. So far, the revelations put the chief justice’s money and properties at about P55 million, not a puny amount considering the relatively low salaries of a government officials. This total amount doesn’t include US dollar bank accounts that Corona is said to have and which are secret and untouchable according to Philippine law on the confidentiality of bank accounts.

Corona’s defense promise to make a full accounting of all of their client’s assets when it’s their turn to present evidence. They will find ways to explain and rationalize how Corona has been able to amass such considerable wealth on a government salary.

For now, Corona and his wife have said that they both came from families of considerable means and, thus, could afford to purchase expensive condos and other forms of real estate. They also proclaim that it’s not a crime to own peso and dollar bank accounts.

But such protestations are diversionary in nature and don’t address the charges. One of the charges against Corona is that he hadn’t been truthful in declaring his total assets as required by law. He had been underdeclaring his wealth and properties. On the face of the revelations so far, he is guilty of perjury (SALN’s are sworn to by the filer) and, thus, should be convicted and thrown out of office.

By this evidence so far, Corona defenders assert that, even if true, undervaluing one’s assets isn’t an impeachable offense. The lawyers and constitutionalists can debate that point until they’re blue in the face but then another question pops up: is a lying chief justice fit to remain as the head magistrate of the land? If he’s acquitted on the basis of a strict definition of an impeachable offense, there’s a danger that the “people’s court,” the court of public opinion, may not render a similar verdict but, rather, a guilty one.

To be fair, the defense hasn’t presented its evidence against what the prosecution has put on the table so far. There may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for the seemingly damning evidence divulged so far, as Corona’s defense claims. But what’s been shown so far is hard to contradict.

The trial still has a long way to go. But there’s already talk that the prosecution may rest its case after three or four of the articles of impeachment and not take up all of the eight articles they’ve elevated to the court. Some on the prosecution side have already claimed that they’ve been able to present solid evidence “proof beyond doubt” enough to convict Corona.

There’s also a school of thought that says, because of all the “dirt” that’s been exposed about Corona, he’s already “damaged goods” and, even if found not guilty, may have lost much credibility to still serve as chief justice as well as run the judicial bureaucracy.

The coming weeks will be interesting.

As a sidebar to Corona’s story, I had a Filipino friend in the United States who is a personal friend of Corona’s. This former friend of mine shares similar characteristics that have been attributed to Corona: dishonest, lacks integrity, crafty and manipulative, and lacks the Filipino trait of delicadeza (lacking values and ethics). Which proves the saying: Birds of a feather flock together.

Many observers of the impeachment trial scoff that everybody in government steals and owns hidden wealth stashed away for rainy days. This may indeed be true in the Philippines. But that doesn’t mean that once you catch someone suspected of such a crime you let him get away just because everyone else is doing it. If you do, then what would stop everyone from committing similar crimes? And worse, what if it’s the chief guardian of the law who’s guilty?

In the past, the Supreme Court has been very strict about government officials not disclosing all of their assets. In 1997, the high court fired a court interpreter in Davao, in southern Philippines, for not disclosing in her SALN her ownership of a stall in a public market. The relatively junior court employee lost her retirement benefits and was barred from future government employment.

If the Supreme Court was that strict and had meted out such drastic  punishment on a lowly court staffer, should the same strict rules be applied on  the chief magistrate of the land?

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