Historic decisionBy Artemio V. Panganiban
Philippine Daily Inquirer
The Senate is on the threshold of history. For the first time ever, it will complete an impeachment trial tomorrow. Unlike in the case of former President Joseph Estrada that ended in a walkout, it will have the singular opportunity to render a historic decision based on the evidence presented by the parties. By this judgment, the Senate and the senators will be judged by our people and by the world.
Case for the prosecution. Though besieged initially by stumbles and foibles, the prosecution still managed to build a prima facie case against Chief Justice (CJ) Renato C. Corona by proving at least one of the eight articles of the impeachment complaint: that the respondent culpably violated the Constitution and betrayed public trust via his repeated failure to include some of his properties in his statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs).
Such a failure, according to the Senate’s order dated Jan. 27, 2012, “is substantially and inextricably linked” to his constitutional and legal duty to “completely, truthfully and faithfully declare his assets, liabilities and net worth.” Citing jurisprudence, it explained that though the prosecution was barred from presenting evidence directly proving ill-gotten wealth, nonetheless, undisclosed assets constitute ill-gotten wealth when shown to be grossly disproportionate to legitimate income.
The prosecution’s evidence shows that the acquisition value of the real estate assets of the respondent and the yearend balances of his bank accounts are much more than his legal income. Thus, the legal conclusion of ill-gotten wealth may be logically implied.
Case for the defense. The defense hemmed and hawed about the invalidity of the complaint’s verification and the insufficiency of the prosecutors’ evidence. If it truly believed that the prosecution failed to muster a prima facie case, the defense should not have wasted the valuable time of the Senate; it should have promptly asked for judgment on the basis of the supposedly weak prosecution case.
However, it opted to go ahead and to present its own evidence. And this is when it showed damning cracks in its armor. Not unlike the prosecution, the defense, in my humble view, was not free of miscues and miscalculations. Far from overturning the prosecution evidence, it unwittingly bolstered it in at least two ways.
First, it called Ombudsman (OMB) Conchita Carpio Morales to the witness stand after the OMB sent a confidential letter to the CJ requesting him to explain within 72 hours “several bank accounts in the PSBank and several other banks … including those denominated in US dollars the aggregate value of which amounts to at least $10” million.
Probably thinking that the OMB had no proof for her charge, given that the three complaints lodged with her merely cited evidence already presented in the impeachment court and overlooking the portion of her letter saying she had already conducted an initial investigation, the defense lawyers called her to the stand without foreknowledge of her testimony.
To their total surprise, the OMB waved 17 sheets of paper she obtained from the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) showing more than 400 transactions made by the respondent in his many accounts in five banks in 2003 to 2012.
Instead of recklessly haling the OMB to the witness stand, the defense lawyers—in response to her confidential letter—could have simply asked her to provide confidential details of her claimed dollar accounts. In this manner, they would have known in advance the bases of her letter and would not have extracted her damaging testimony.
The prosecution may have been aching to call the OMB to the stand but could not, because it had already rested its evidence. Moreover, the Supreme Court’s temporary restraining order barred it from looking into the respondent’s dollar accounts. But having called the OMB to the stand, the CJ’s lawyers cannot disown her testimony. Since she was their witness, albeit “hostile,” they were bound by her testimony, as aptly ruled by Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile.
Ultimate miscalculation. As if this were not enough, the defense lawyers committed yet a second miscalculation by calling their client to the stand. Taking advantage of Enrile’s utmost liberality in allowing him to read, and at times extemporize, a 3-hour “opening statement,” the CJ insisted that most of his accounts have been closed and had only four dollar accounts remaining.
By this admission, he strengthened the prosecution’s charge of nondisclosure of his assets. Worse, he admitted upon questioning by Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano that his undisclosed (repeat, undisclosed) balances amount to $2.4 million plus P80 million, totaling nearly P190 million! Apart from this, the prosecution would surely comb the various exhibits, as Sen. Franklin Drilon did, and show during the oral argument the gross disparity between his assets and SALN disclosures.
In sum, instead of destroying the prima facie case built by the prosecution, the defense—unfortunately for the CJ—unwittingly and ironically fortified it. The OMB’s testimony and the CJ’s admissions plus the prima facie prosecution evidence inexorably lead to the legal conclusion of ill-gotten wealth.
Finally, the Filipino people and the world witnessed the impeachment trial via the magic of TV, radio, Internet and other telecommunication wonders. By the Senate’s historic decision, our people will stand proud in showing the world the maturity and vibrancy of our constitutional democracy.
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