Poll results give senators space to actually judge
Right before the Senate went into its five-week Lenten recess, Pulse Asia released a study showing that 47 percent of Filipinos believed Chief Justice Renato Corona was guilty. Significantly, 43 percent are ambivalent as regards his innocence or guilt, and 58 percent believe that the nation will accept the Senate’s verdict either way.
Put yourselves in the shoes of the senators. These findings do not really signal them to vote for removal. Had they been overwhelming, say, for removal, then the senators will surely recognize impeachment as a political exercise and vote accordingly. But the equivocal numbers gives them space to actually judge. In that case, the trial may in the end be decided less by questions of fact—since the appreciation of evidence can be subjective—but by questions of law on what standard of ethics we require of the chief magistrate of our highest court.
As the defense closed the second week of its presentation of evidence, Corona’s strategy has been to explain that the properties he allegedly hid from his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) do not even belong to him because they had been sold to others.
The prosecution’s response was to impugn these as bogus sales, show that Corona has inconsistently reported what he owned at exactly which time, and generally raise technical defects in the documentation.
Flip-flopping LRA chief
The most explosive and agonizing moment of the week was the testimony of Land Registration Authority (LRA) administrator Eulalio Diaz III who sent the prosecution the list of 45 properties allegedly owned by the Coronas.
His first problem was rather simple: his list was wrong. The prosecution itself admits that the list is bloated and has pared it down to 21 properties, some of them mere parking lots, while the defense would trim it down to only five properties actually owned by Corona.
Diaz explained that he merely made a computerized “name search” of LRA files in Metro Manila listed under Corona’s name, and that he never claimed that Corona owned them all. Lead prosecutor Rep. Niel Tupas similarly said they never certified the correctness of the list, but merely attached it to their subpoena request precisely to have them verified.
Diaz’s second problem was what the senators found to be his “cavalier” attitude toward the truth and other people’s reputation. Senators Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Loren Legarda were aghast that the LRA could issue that damning list upon the mere request of one party to a case. Can anyone just walk up to him and ask for a list? Diaz was confounded. At one point, he even blurted out that this was the first time he generated such a list, which only made it worse for him because, as Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago suggested, he was actually complicit in a Malacañang-masterminded plot to oust the Chief Justice.
His third problem was that he contradicted himself on whether he knew that the list would be used for the impeachment trial and whether the list was already available when it was requested by the prosecution.
Corona’s property problem
When did he become the owner?
With regard to some properties, Corona’s problem was that he couldn’t deny that he owned them because he belatedly listed them in his SALNs. That the tardiness amounted to concealment until the moment of disclosure.
The Coronas purchased The Columns unit on Ayala Avenue in 2003 but declared it only in 2010. This provoked a long tedious debate on legal technicalities: When does a buyer become the owner of a condominium unit? The defense explains that, because of serious defects, the Coronas refused to accept it until 2010. But Sen. Sergio Osmeña said that even if this were so, the P3.5 million payment should have been reflected in the SALN somehow, possibly as accounts receivable, because it couldn’t have meanwhile vanished into thin air.
Shrinking list of assets
Last week, the defense already showed that the P6.1-million McKinley Hill condominium had already been sold by the Coronas to their daughter, Charina. This week, the defense showed that Charina, a longtime US resident, had properly authorized her parents to act in her behalf in that sale, showing that the sale was genuine and not simulated.
Last week too, the defense explained the alleged Quezon City properties of the Coronas, namely, the Burgundy condominium and three properties located in La Vista, Xavierville and Ayala Heights had been either sold or properly declared. This week, the Quezon City Register of Deeds identified the buyers of the four Quezon City properties, including daughter Carla who bought three properties for a total of P43 million.
Finally, the senators again debated which value should have been declared in the SALN—the acquisition cost or the fair market value, which is typically higher. The Makati City Assessor testified that Corona declared the fair market value of his Columns condominium unit.
Finally, the defense showed evidence that Cristina Corona, on her own, contributed to the family’s wealth. An officer of the John Hay Management Corp., a government corporation that Cristina used to head, testified that they paid her more than P6 million during her tenure.
The high point on this issue was when former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza testified on the city’s payment of P34 million to the Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc. (BGEI), owned by Cristina Corona’s family to administer prime real estate property in Sampaloc. When Atienza was mayor, the city expropriated a BGEI-owned lot which the city government used as a relocation site for the old Sampaloc public market that was displaced by the LRT elevated train. They paid P34 million to BGEI.
Sen. Franklin Drilon asked why the check payment was made to Cristina Corona, when the corporation empowered her as its agent only “to negotiate, sell and dispose of the property.” Atienza replied that he actually made the check payable to Cristina Corona “in trust for the Basa-Guidote Corporation” as an “added safety feature.”
The senators asked the parties to explain who now owns that money. The Basa-Guidote money is relevant to Corona’s earlier claim that he drew an P11-million cash advance from the corporation which he used to buy the La Vista property. Chief defense counsel Serafin Cuevas is also using it to explain the bank accounts. “[T]his money [is] merely held in trust by Chief Justice Corona, coming from the Basa-Guidote account, as well as the money sent to them by their children,” he said.
Last month, the prosecution tried to disprove that, by getting an officer of the Security and Exchange Commission to testify that BGEI’s license has already been revoked for failing SEC reporting requirements. There ensued a legal debate—unresolved to this date—on whether the corporation could still have lent money nonetheless.
Questions of law
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago proposed that mere good faith omissions in the SALN do not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. Sen. Joker Arroyo said that if the error was “correctible,” it shouldn’t be impeachable. It’s not enough for the prosecution to show the omission; they must prove that it wasn’t mere negligence but was intentional. Prosecution spokesperson Rep. Sonny Angara however explained that in the Supreme Court decision cited by Santiago, the public officer actually disclosed his wife’s businesses but failed merely to specify the details, unlike the total concealment by the Chief Justice.
On the other hand, Santiago proposed that the defense must show that Chief Justice Corona made full disclosure in his SALNs of his bank deposits.
Finally, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile blocked off the defense’s attempt to raise a new angle by getting a subpoena for the SALNs of other public officials, which would show that Corona had simply followed common SALN practices.
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