Rewind buttonBy Juan L. Mercado
Philippine Daily Inquirer
“Know the past to understand the present,” astrophysicist Carl Sagan often suggested. So, we surfed earlier trials during the break in Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment.
Raps against President Joseph Estrada in 2001 and Chief Justice Hilario Davide in 2003 barreled on controversy-ridden tracks. Their ends differ. Do they hint at how curtains may drop for Corona?
Speaker Manuel Villar mumbled the opening prayer, skipped the roll call, raced through a resolution, banged his gavel to lob Estrada’s impeachment to the Senate. Protests failed to derail the trial.
Last December, 188 congressmen signed charges against Corona. They also skipped plenary debates, shoved the raps forthwith to the Senate, where hearings began pronto.
Eduardo Cojuangco’s Nationalist People’s Coalition, in July 2002, rammed through a House probe into Judiciary Development Fund expenditures by Davide. Representatives Gilberto Teodoro of Tarlac and Felix Fuentebella of Camarines Sur filed impeachment articles in October 2003.
“In gangland’s culture, Davide is a negative example of the public official,” Inquirer’s Randy David wrote. “He does not grovel. He is… uncompromising” and, as the nation saw in Erap’s impeachment, “rules with impartiality. Now, he’s being taught a lesson by young heirs of those who’ve imagined themselves to be the real lords.”
Aside from Teodoro and Fuentebella, these included Darlene Antonino-Custodio, Francis Escudero, Ace Durano, Constantino Jaraula. Meet the “Brat Pack.”
“We cannot have a nation run by a thief,” declared prosecutor Rep. Joker Arroyo when Erap’s trial opened on Dec. 7, 2000. Charges included skimming P130 million from tobacco excise taxes, misdeclaring his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth to mansions for mistresses.
“In the name of God, go,” Rep. Niel Tupas of the prosecution team prodded Corona. This was lifted from Oliver Cromwell’s 1653 speech dismissing England’s Long Parliament. Charges ranged from sleaze to betrayal of public trust. “Depart, I say, and let us have done with you.”
Justify JDF disbursements, as required by Resolution 460, a House justice committee clerk wrote the Chief Justice. Davide refused. The Court was a coequal body, he answered politely.
“Arrogant,” snapped Fuentebella, who has since skidded into anonymity.
What if justices rule that the Brat Pack’s bid was unconstitutional? “They will be impeached,” Teodoro threatened. “That way, future justices will not commit the same mistake.”
Impeachment is a constitutional remedy of last resort. Arrogance debases it into a billy stick for political vendetta. No one would be safe then.
This attack on Davide comes when “justices must rule if a huge bloc of San Miguel Corp. shares were bought by Cojuangco with coco levy funds,” Sun Star cautioned in its Nov. 2, 2003 editorial. That was right on the button. Eight years after that editorial, Corona and other Arroyo justices authorized Eduardo Cojuangco to pocket 16.2 million SMC shares by dipping into levies wrung from indigent coconut farmers.
“The biggest joke to hit the century,” snapped Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales in a scathing dissent.
Today, senator-judges sift through land titles of Corona, whose 2002 statement of assets and liabilities put his net worth at P14 million. Now his assets include a P3 million La Vista condo bought for P16 million to a P6.8 million Bellagio penthouse acquired for P14.5 million.
Rewind to December 2000. Estrada’s lawyers parried inspection by the impeachment court of various houses. Five were traced to Erap’s family, children and mistresses. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism pinpointed, among others, the P58.9 million house on 771 Harvard St. and the notorious P32.8 million Boracay Mansion on 100 Eleventh St., in Quezon City, which was abandoned in People Power 2’s aftermath.
It was the “Jose Velarde” account that finally did Estrada in, says “Policing America’s Empire” by Alfred McCoy. Excerpts: “Impeccably groomed … the Equitable-PCI Bank’s Clarissa Ocampo testified she sat at (Erap’s) left side, ‘about a foot away,’ as he signed ‘Jose Velarde’ on documents for a P500 million investment in the Wellex group, owned by a presidential crony.”
“He did not sign his real name,” Ocampo said. “So, I did not authenticate his signature.” She was one of the very few who could link Estrada to the Jose Velarde persona. She was very, very scared.
Charges of dissipating the JDF by Davide crumbled when scrutinized. The Brat Pack, for example, erroneously lumped balances from one year to another. “No graft. No corruption,” wrote UP School of Economics’ Solita Monsod. “No betrayal of public trust. Just wrong arithmetic.”
The Supreme Court found that the Teodoro-Fuentebella charge violated the constitutional bar on initiating more than one impeachment against the same official within a year. Respect the Court’s position, 115 congressmen urged. The NPC bloc and 32 allies voted no. The bid collapsed.
Estrada’s trial ended abruptly when People Power 2 overruled a majority of 11 senator-judges, who voted to seal the “Jose Velarde” envelope. A people’s revolt swept away a degraded impeachment trial. The Craven 11 twisted in the wind.
This history shows there is no substitute for citizens riding shotgun over impeachment judges. “They’re all honest men,” a Spanish proverb goes. “But why can I not find my coat?”
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