‘Bitin’By Artemio V. Panganiban
Philippine Daily Inquirer
After 34 days of trial spanning nearly three months, the Senate impeachment court recessed last March 22, even though the defense had not finished presenting its evidence to explain alleged inadequacies and inconsistencies in Chief Justice Renato C. Corona’s statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs).
Dollar accounts. Most significant, the defense had not yet explained what many consider as the most damning prosecution evidence, the respondent’s huge peso deposits and the yet undisclosed sums in his admittedly existent dollar accounts. Upon questioning by Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, Philippine Savings Bank (PSBank) president Pascual Garcia III admitted that the respondent owned five foreign currency deposits in the bank.
Indeed, the trial began with effervescent hopes for a speedy and decisive conclusion prior to the Senate’s Lenten break. Unfortunately, it adjourned short of expectations, better expressed in the Filipino colloquial term “bitin.”
Between now and the resumption of the trial on May 7, some events outside the impeachment court can deeply affect the case. Potentially, the most intrusive of these events are two pending Supreme Court cases, the first of which is the petition by PSBank to bar the public disclosure of these dollar deposits.
The high court has already issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) stopping the Senate from inquiring into these accounts. During the recess, however, if the high court issues a final judgment lifting the TRO and allowing the Senate to look into these accounts, then the defense’s duty to explain would become more stringent, given that the dollar accounts were never declared in the respondent’s SALNs.
Note that in its order of March 12, the impeachment court held that: “The prosecution is deemed to have rested its case, subject to its reservation on the presentation of 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 [Republic Act] 6426.”
Senate proceedings void? The second of these cases involve the Chief Justice’s petition filed in the Supreme Court on Feb. 8 and his supplemental petition filed on Feb. 13, both praying for the nullification of the impeachment complaint and, consequently, for the annulment of all the proceedings in the Senate, grounded on the alleged violation of his right to due process and on the alleged bias of some senator-judges.
Significantly, while the high court required the Senate to comment on the petitions, it did not, unlike in the first case, issue a TRO. In its comment filed on March 13, the Senate through its counsel, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), argued: “The Senate’s sole power to try and decide impeachment cases is subject only to three specific requirements. These are: (a) the senators shall be under oath or affirmation; (b) when the President is on trial, the Chief Justice … shall preside (but not vote) over the impeachment trial; and (c) the impeached public officer may only be convicted upon the concurrence of two-thirds of all the members of the Senate.”
The OSG explained that since the Senate had not violated these requirements, the high court has no authority to intervene and void the impeachment trial. For the same reason, the Senate cannot in any wise be deemed to have acted with grave abuse of discretion. Quite the contrary, it has acted prudently and carefully.
Other possibilities. Apart from these two cases, let me point out other possible game changers. Though superior in invoking legalities and technicalities, the defense has however failed, thus far, to win the people, the principals of the senator-judges. The recent Pulse Asia survey showed that 47 percent believe the respondent is guilty, while only 5 percent think he is innocent and 43 percent are undecided. Worse, 60 percent do not trust him while only 11 percent do and 29 percent are undecided. The 6-week recess could give the defense breathing space to revise its public relations strategy.
By April 30—during the recess—all public officials will have to file their SALNs for 2011. Respondent will have to make a few crucial personal decisions. Will he disclose in his new SALN the acquisition cost of his assets, as opined by Senate President Enrile? Will he abandon his claim that he needs only to declare the market and assessed values that are used by city assessors to collect real estate taxes?
So also, will he declare the actual deposits in his peso accounts? Will he also disclose the sums deposited in his dollar accounts which are already admitted by PSBank to be his? After all, he has promised to reveal his dollar deposits, which promise—by his own timeline—is now overdue.
Will he admit to owning more than five real estate assets? Will he correct all his previous SALNs? If so, will he admit “errors” in them? Will such corrections exonerate him? Or will they in fact be deemed admissions of guilt?
In addition to the above, the 6-week recess can produce new twists and turns, which may alter the complexion of this case. Or which may altogether make it obsolete, if the Supreme Court voids the entire Senate proceedings. In this event, will the Senate surrender its “sole power to try and decide” the impeachment trial? And will our people agree? Or will they again short-circuit the process by another nonviolent people power revolution?
Due to the recess, the answers to these questions hang. Bitin!
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