Joker Arroyo on Estrada’s money trail
(Concluded from Wednesday)
CANBERRA—Then Rep. Joker Arroyo played a prominent role in the impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada in December 2001, as the lead government prosecutor in the sensational corruption charges lodged against him.
Joker hogged the spotlight in that case where, for the first time, a Philippine president faced allegations of bribery, corruption, betrayal of public trust and culpable violation of the Constitution. The landmark trial was triggered by the exposé in October 2000 of a whistle-blower, Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis “Chavit” Singson, who said Estrada was receiving more than P545 million in bribes to protect operators of the illegal numbers game “jueteng.”
The exposé exploded into a serious political scandal after the Senate blue ribbon committee launched an investigation that led to the filing of the unprecedented impeachment case. The House of Representatives hurriedly endorsed it to the impeachment tribunal, the Senate, without a plenary vote for trial.
The trial turned into a circus, aggravated by widespread public demonstrations demanding Estrada’s resignation, reminiscent of the gladiatorial bouts in ancient Greece in which combatants fought to the death in response to calls for blood from the cackling mob at the coliseum.
The trial degenerated into a spectator sport aired live on TV, in which the performance of the prosecution and defense lawyers riveted more public attention than the legal arguments. The lawyers on both sides argued their case seeking to win public applause rather than presenting their pleadings in lawyerly language.
It appeared to us who covered the proceedings that the prosecution led by Joker Arroyo and the defense led by Estelito Mendoza, former justice minister of the Marcos dictatorship played the game of one-upmanship to the hilt. Both were veteran and experienced members of the bar, and it became an issue in the press gallery who was the better lawyer or stage performer between the two men. It seemed to us that their clashes in the impeachment arena eclipsed the main issue of the impeachment trial—the guilt or innocence of Estrada—and projected the impression that the trial put the reputation of Joker and Mendoza as trial lawyers on the line rather than the fate of the man in the dock.
After a period that put to the test the fairness and viability of impeachment as a constitutional mechanism to remove high public officials, especially the chief executive, the courtroom drama became less important to us than the outcome of the trial. We are no great fan of Joker or an awestruck admirer of Mendoza. This column is more interested in demonstrating that Estrada’s impeachment trial was a failed process despite the prodigious effort and melodramatic oratorical output exhibited there. The trial unmasked the flawed properties of the impeachment process as a means to remove failed leaders in a constitutional crisis.
In a tactical shift at the start of the trial, the prosecution team indicated it would focus on introducing undisclosed documentary evidence on Estrada’s bank transactions mapping the “money trail” of his transactions rather than anchoring its case on Singson’s exposé. The shift marked Joker’s emergence as an anticorruption reformer shedding his reputation as a human rights activist. In his opening statement at the start of the trial, and armed with loads of documentary evidence, Joker accused Estrada of concealing his assets in bank accounts using a fictitious name.
But the signatures on the checks gave Estrada away, Joker claimed. They were identical to the presidential signatures found on Philippine bank notes. “We cannot have the country run by a thief like this,” he said.
The trial took a dramatic turn on Dec. 22, 2000, when Clarissa Ocampo, senior vice president of Equitable PCI Bank, testified that she witnessed Estrada sign a false name—Jose Velarde—on bank documents covering a “P500-million transaction.” The testimony provided the “smoking gun” that established the ownership of the mysterious “Jose Velarde account” that had eluded the prosecutors in their tedious tracking of the paper trail.
On Jan. 19, 2001, the prosecution moved for the opening of a second envelope containing the documents from Ocampo, which was considered by the prosecution as its last big card to wrap up its case. After a tense debate, a bold move was made to force a vote to open the second envelope to show who had the numbers. In the roll call vote, 11 voted “no” and 10 voted “yes.”
That vote marked the end of the trial and prompted a walkout by the prosecutors. Joker Arroyo called it “a shameless vote of acquittal.” In the end, Estrada was neither convicted nor acquitted. After the failure of Joker’s panel to make the impeachment tribunal disclose the contents of the second envelope, the prosecutors walked out before the trial was officially terminated.
The walkout transferred the case to the howling mob in the streets, precipitating People Power 2 and pushing the country to the edge of a military coup, with the military withdrawing support from the Estrada administration and resulting in the collapse of government. Who was the hero in this collapse? Neither Joker Arroyo nor Estelito Mendoza, the protagonists in the debates in the trial. Who emerged as the hero from the stalemate? It was none other than Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Angelo Reyes, who pulled together the general staff to withdraw support from the Estrada administration.
Estrada was forced to resign after he was shown incapable to govern following the mass resignations of his Cabinet. And the conflict was transferred to the streets for resolution.
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