With Due Respect

Will Corona testify?

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Up to now, I cannot fathom why the lawyers of Chief Justice (CJ) Renato C. Corona called Ombudsman (OMB) Conchita Carpio Morales to the witness stand. In a litigation, a party presents a witness to prove its allegations, or to contradict the evidence of the opposing side.

OMB as witness. The cardinal rule is never to call a witness whose testimony is not known. Similarly, never ask a question when you do not know the answer. But the exact opposite happened. Obviously unexpected by the defense, the OMB did not help the CJ’s cause. Quite the contrary, she demolished it.

Tellingly, the OMB testified that she had obtained documents from the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) showing that the CJ had several dollar accounts undisclosed in his statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs).

To obtain these documents, the OMB used her constitutional mandate to investigate any public official whose act or omission “appears to be illegal, unjust, improper, or inefficient.” She also pointed to the CJ’s SALNs that authorized her “to obtain and secure from all appropriate government agencies … documents that show [the CJ’s] assets, liabilities, net worth, business interests and financial transactions.”

Allowed unanimously by the Senate to use a PowerPoint, Morales explained—in simple graphic terms, understood by ordinary citizens—that these accounts had “transaction balances” of between $10 and $12 million.

These were culled from the inflow and outflow of funds in the 82 accounts of the CJ in five banks. However, these 82 accounts may not have existed simultaneously; some may have been closed and the balances moved to other accounts. Also, the $10-$12 million may in fact be more than the yearend balances. Nonetheless, the issue is whether the yearend balances were reported in the SALNs and whether they are disproportionate to his legal income and thus ill-gotten.

Hostile witness. Ironically, these damning OMB testimony and AMLC documents were not known to or offered by the prosecutors as part of their evidence. Neither did the impeachment court admit them in evidence. In a manner of speaking, they were manna or free gifts from the defense to the prosecution.

The defense tried to argue that Corona was not bound by the Morales bombshell, given that the OMB was a “hostile” witness. However, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile quickly shot down this argument, saying that a party is bound by the testimony of every witness he or she calls to the stand, including hostile witnesses.

Some senators expressed doubts on the admissibility of the documents on the ground that Morales obtained them from the AMLC without a court order. However, Morales invoked her specific constitutional authority to seek the help of any government agency in the discharge of her duties. Enrile made short shrift of the argumentation, pointing out that even illegally obtained evidence, assuming they could be so characterized, would be admissible in the impeachment court.

Last witness. The defense lined up the CJ this Tuesday as its last witness, reversing its earlier stance finding no necessity for his testimony. This about-face is strange and may prove costly for the defense. Note that the CJ was charged with nondisclosure and/or undervaluation of his houses, condos, peso and dollar deposits. Note, too, that the Senate limited the prosecution to the presentation of yearend deposit balances, because these are the only ones required to be disclosed in the SALNs.

Plainly, however, Morales did not focus on the yearend balances of Corona’s dollar accounts. She extensively bared the many transactions made in 2003-2012. So, legally speaking, she did not directly provide proof of the yearend balances. By testifying that Morales “bloated” or “exaggerated” the figures, Corona would be admitting the existence of the dollar accounts. Worse, once on the witness stand, he would be asked to point to the yearend balances, thereby providing conclusive proof of his failure to disclose them.

On the stand, too, Corona would surely be questioned on his dollar accounts at PSBank, which are covered by a Supreme Court temporary restraining order. At the risk of completely losing his credibility, he could not refuse to give his consent to the inquiry because of his repeated promises to bare all his accounts. Thus, the TRO and the entire Supreme Court case that protected him would become academic. This would then pave the way for unbridled questions on the many dollar accounts brought up by Morales.

His testimony may be fodder for future cases, criminal and otherwise, that may be filed against him. He would be fair game because his counsel cannot object to the senators’ questions even if they may be incriminating, irrelevant or immaterial.

Succumbing to the prosecution’s dare, the defense was trapped into calling witnesses who exposed the labyrinthine secrets of how the CJ’s daughter incredibly bought Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc., which had net cash assets of more than P34 million, for the measly sum of P28,000. Worse, at the prodding of the prosecutors and some senators, it gambled and miserably lost in calling the OMB to the stand.

Given all these, will Justice Serafin Cuevas throw his client to the tender mercies of the prosecutors and senator-judges to testify merely on undisclosed or undervalued assets that he, as one of the most seasoned and astute trial lawyers in the country, could probably explain better during the oral argument? I guess not, but let us wait and see come Tuesday.

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