Day 1 to 11: Legal points hotly debated and evidence presented
This summary of the impeachment trial thus far of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona is organized around the legal principles and the evidence presented. The legal principles deal with the points of law established in the course of the proceedings. The factual portion deals with the evidence presented by the prosecution.
From Day 1, they have tussled repeatedly on whether the impeachment trial should be held to the stricter standards of a criminal case, or the more relaxed standards of an administrative case.
The first was when, presiding officer Juan Ponce Enrile, first on his own and later upheld by the Senate 14-6, rejected the prosecution’s request to subpoena Corona and his family to testify or produce documents, citing Corona’s right against self-incrimination which apply typically but not exclusively in criminal cases. It also cited the family’s testimonial immunity based on the rules of evidence, protecting both the truth (against a relative’s “incentive to perjure,” or the tendency to fib for a loved one) and the family (against the emotional strain of pitting family members against each other).
The second was when Enrile read his statement saying that impeachment was “akin to a criminal proceeding,” while agreeing with the prosecution that it was sui generis or “in a class of its own.”
The third was when Sen. Gregorio Honasan asked whether the presumption of innocence, which the Constitution gives only to the accused in criminal cases, applied as well in impeachments. Both parties’ counsels agreed that the presumption applied.
The fourth was when Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, pointed out the “quasipolitical and quasijudicial” nature of the impeachment trial and asked what “standard of proof” applied. Was it the minimum standard of “substantial evidence” required in administrative cases? Or “preponderance of evidence” required in civil cases? Or the highest level of “proof beyond reasonable doubt” entailed for criminal conviction? The matter was referred to caucus, and not to floor debate.
The fifth was when Rep. Niel Tupas by Day 5 asked for “flexibility” in presenting evidence in protest over the legalistic objections raised by defense counsel Serafin Cuevas. No action was taken on his request, Senator Enrile citing the need to observe the Chief Justice’s right to due process.
The sixth was when Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV compared the impeachment court to the honor committee at the Philippine Military Academy, and he would accordingly rely upon a “basic sense of justice” about the “highest possible moral [fitness]” for a Chief Justice.
Primacy of impeach court
Finally, on Day 11 of the trial, Sen. Joker Arroyo said that it wasn’t enough for the prosecution to prove the charges as if they were ordinary crimes. They must meet a “higher bar” and show that the violence rises to the level of an impeachable offense. Even if nondisclosures in the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) are punishable as perjury, that wouldn’t by itself make it impeachable.
The Senate subpoenaed the Supreme Court clerk of court to produce the SALNs of the Chief Justice, but she hesitated to comply and asked for a chance to ask the SC’s permission first, entailing a one-week delay in accordance with the SC’s regular calendar for its en banc discussions.
The Constitution provides that the SALNs “shall be disclosed to the public in the manner provided by law.” However, the SC has adopted a rule frustrating that clause, saying that their own SALNs can be disclosed only with their prior permission. Since then, such permission has never been granted. Sen. Joker Arroyo warned of a constitutional crisis should the Senate insist. Senators Franklin Drilon and Alan Peter Cayetano insisted on the primacy of orders emanating from the Senate as impeachment tribunal. After much discussion, Enrile ordered the clerk of court to submit Corona’s SALNs, and she complied.
Sequence of presentation
The parties have had two skirmishes on this point. There are eight articles of impeachment, and the defense had expected that the presentation of evidence for each article would be done in the same sequence.
In Week 1, however, the prosecution insisted on their prerogative to fix that sequence, according to their own litigation strategy. The Senate allowed that, but Senators Edgardo Angara and Joker Arroyo asked the parties to declare that sequence in advance.
Accordingly, the prosecution announced this initial sequence: Article II (nondisclosure of the SALNs, I (manifest partiality and midnight appointment), and then VII (TRO on the watch-list order against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo).
By Week 2, Senator Santiago, noting the public’s growing impatience with the trial, asked that the parties submit a list of all their witnesses and documents. By the start of Week 3, the prosecution listed 100 witnesses, to the dismay of the senator-judges. Strangely, the defense did not file their list until toward the end of Week 3.
By Week 3, the prosecution asked for a new order of presentation of evidence: Article II (SALNs), III (lack of integrity), I (manifest partiality and midnight appointment), VII (TRO on watch-list order), VIII (no accounting for court funds), IV (TRO on the impeachment of former President Arroyo’s Ombudsman), V (flipflopping SC decisions), and VI (cover-up of plagiarism on comfort women case).
Senator Recto likewise proposed that, instead of allowing the prosecution to prove the eight articles of impeachment in their entirety before the defense can present theirs, the Senate should hear each article separately so that the defense can immediately have a chance to rebut the prosecution. Senator Enrile said this would be contrary to the rules.
On the first day of the trial, the defense already asked the Senate to take action against the prosecution for presenting its evidence before the media. Enrile’s response was merely to admonish all parties to refrain from public statements and to direct their case to the Senate rather than the media.
Repeatedly in the next trial dates, Enrile would remind counsels of this admonition, with both parties, for instance, denying having released the ITRs to the public.
By Day 7, Senator Honasan asked the spokespersons for both parties “to moderate their statements” lest the “trial outside the courtroom” proceed faster than the trial inside the Senate hall, thus “destroying the honor of a good family name.” Senators Panfilo Lacson, Teofisto Guingona and Alan Peter Cayetano noted that the impeachment is a public trial and the public is entitled to see the evidence presented before the Senate.
On Day 11, Sen. Francis Escudero asked the prosecution why they attributed 45 properties to Corona before the media, but thus far proved only 24 properties at most.
Senate bars certain evidence
The Senate has barred the prosecution from even presenting proof of certain allegations. The first is proof on ill-gotten wealth. Senator Alan Peter Cayetano noted that Article II accused Corona of three things: failure to file SALNs, incomplete disclosure of assets in the SALNs, and suspicions of ill-gotten wealth.
The Senate eventually ruled that it would allow evidence only on the first two counts (nonfiling of and nondisclosure in SALNs), but not on the third count which alleged mere “suspicions” of ill-gotten wealth. “Ultimate facts” are those which, if hypothetically admitted as true, would be sufficient to judge the case. Since third count merely alleges “suspicions,” it does not constitute such “ultimate facts.” Therefore, the Senate disallowed any evidence on ill-gotten wealth.
However, this is not fatal for the prosecution because the Senate also ruled that, should it find, in the course of the SALNs testimony, that Corona has assets that are “manifestly out of proportion to his salary [and other] lawful income [it] shall be presumed prima facie to have been unlawfully acquired.”
Second, the prosecution was barred from presenting evidence not related to the Corona family, citing these persons’ right to privacy and right against unlawful search and seizure.
(Senator Escudero also asked if the impeachment trial is limited to the acts of Corona as Chief Justice, or whether it can reach back to his entire service as Associate Justice or at the Office of the President. The matter was referred to caucus.)
The Supreme Court Clerk of Court produced Corona’s SALNs during his years in the Court, and testified that these have never been publicly disclosed. The Malacañang records officer produced Corona’s SALNs for the years he worked in the Office of the President. Note that impeachment article II charges Corona had failed file these SALNs.
To testify on Corona’s properties, the prosecution presented three Registers of Deeds: from Taguig-Pateros, on condominium unit at The Bellagio, valued at P14.6 million, in the name of Chief Justice Renato Corona and his wife, later sold to their daughter; from Quezon City, on the Burgundy property sold by Mrs. Corona to her daughter Carla; and from Marikina, on certain real estate in that city. Under cross-examination, the Marikina Register of Deeds testified that the seven lots of the Corona spouses have since been sold. Defense counsel Cuevas replied that Corona should not be faulted if the buyers failed to transfer the titles twenty-two years after the sale.
The sixth witness was the BIR Commissioner, who presented Corona’s Income Tax Returns contained in the so-called “alpha list” generated by employers for those employees exempt from actual filing of ITRs and whose compensation income is instead reported by the employer directly to the BIR. Strangely, prosecution counsel Arthur Lim insisted on proving the ITRs despite defense counsel’s repeated offer to “stipulate”, or agree without need of further proof. This provoked Senator Defensor-Santiago pointedly to berate prosecution counsel Lim.
The BIR Commissioner also testified that Mrs. Corona purchased a property in La Vista, Quezon City for P11 million (2003); a P3.5 million condominium with parking space at The Columns on Ayala Avenue (2004); a P9 million property at the Bonifacio Global City (2005); the P14.5 million Bellagio unit (2009); and P700,000 in shares in The Palms Country Club (2011). The Corona couple later sold the La Vista property to their daughter Carla for P18 million, though Carla reported a monthly income of only P8,476 the year before. Mrs. Corona’s employer, John Hay Management Corporation, reported in its alpha list her income as well.
Two officers of Megaworld, the developer of The Bellagio Condominium, were presented to testify on Corona’s 40% discount when he purchased his penthouse unit, priced at P24 million but sold at P14 million. However, this allegation wilted upon questioning by the senators. Senator Enrile pointed out that a “discount” is different from a “price reduction.” Moreover, the price was reduced because the property had been damaged by a typhoon. Finally, upon query by defense counsel Serafin Cuevas, Megaworld admitted they would have offered the same price reduction to any customer. Senator Manny Villar also informed the Senate that these reductions were typical in the industry.
Senators Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Pia Cayetano asked what was the relevance of the 40% reduction to the article II which charged merely non-reporting and non-disclosures on the SALNs. Senator Aquilino Pimentel III even advised the prosecution to drop the issue on the 40% reduction as a non-starter.
Another real estate developer testified on the purchase by the Corona couple of a unit, for P9.1 million in cash, at the Spanish Bay Tower at Bonifacio Ridge. During cross-examination by defense counsel Ramon Esguerra, the witness testified that there was no notice of acceptance of the unit yet.
Finally, Megaworld’s officers testified that they had actually lost two cases before the Supreme Court. However, Senator Panfilo Lacson pointed out that in one of those cases, the parties arrived at a compromise agreement which led to further litigation that Megaworld eventually won
The prosecution next sought to prove as fictitious Corona’s SALN report of an P11 million loan from his wife’s family’s corporation. An officer of the Securities and Exchange Commission testified that the Basa Guidote Enterprises Inc. had already been dormant and defunct by the time Corona supposedly borrowed money from it. It was noted however that there were many ways by which the corporation could still have lent the P11 million notwithstanding. Senator Edgardo Angara called this entire testimony “much ado about nothing”, and Senator Pia Cayetano, “a futile exercise.”
An officer of Ayala Land testified on the Corona’s purchase of a condominium unit at The Columns, sold in 2004 but not declared in any of Corona’s SALNs until 2010. Under cross-examination, defense counsel Esguerra asked if the Ayala officer was aware of the “buyer’s refusal before delivery” due to certain defects. Senator Escudero asked the parties to submit memoranda on when a property should be declared in the SALN, on the date the deed of sale is signed, or on the date of actual turnover? Later, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano asked further: What price should be indicated: the zonal value (fixed by the BIR), the assessed value (fixed by the LGU), or the fair market value. Defense counsel Cuevas replied that the law requires that all these values be declared, but that, in case of unintentional errors, the law also allows persons to enter corrections even after filing.
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