Friday, 23 March 2012 00:00
Attempts by Chief Justice Renato Corona’s defense lawyers to present witnesses and evidence to prove that Corona has other sources of income backfired and only solidified the prosecution’s case against him. Indeed, after failing to convince the senator-judges after six days of testimonies by witnesses and disclosure of evidence, there is a consensus among the senator-judges that only Corona could explain the discrepancies in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs). But taking the witness stand would only expose him to questions that he might not be able to satisfactorily explain.
Last March 19 – Day 31 of the impeachment trial – Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said that if the House prosecutors could show “intent to commit dishonesty,” then they have won their case. On the other hand, she said that if the defense panel could show that Corona had acted in good faith and declared all deposits -- both peso and dollar – in his SALNs, then he would be acquitted.
Santiago cited a Supreme Court ruling in the case of Office of the Ombudsman vs. Racho where the accused was found guilty of dishonesty for nondisclosure of bank deposits in his SALN, a case that mirrors the prosecutors’ claim that Corona did not disclose five peso accounts and five dollar accounts in his SALNs, which were proven to exist by no less than the testimony of the President of the Philippine Savings Bank, Pascual Garcia III. When the defense lead counsel, former Justice Serafin Cuevas, was pressed into disclosing the “secret” dollar accounts, he said that Corona would disclose them in “due time.”
Subsequently, Corona admitted the existence of his dollar accounts saying that he would disclose them in “due time.” The question is: Why couldn’t he disclose them now? The longer he delays disclosure, the harder it would be for people to believe his reason – or excuse – for not disclosing them in his SALNs. And by admitting – or confessing – to the existence of the dollar accounts and not disclosing them in his SALNs, Corona has boxed himself in a “no-win” situation.
It was recently reported in the news that the Office of the Ombudsman requested the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) for a copy of Corona’s bank deposits including the dollar accounts. The news report said that the Ombudsman’s request was precipitated by a complaint filed last February 17 by a group of individuals asking for an investigation of Corona for possible violation of Republic Act 3019, the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, and for possible violation of Republic Act 9160, the Anti-Money Laundering Act.
It is interesting to note that at the bottom of the SALN form, there is a paragraph that serves as a waiver, which reads: “I hereby authorize the Ombudsman or his duly representative to obtain and secure from all appropriate government agencies, including the Bureau of Internal Revenue, such documents that may show my assets, liabilities, networth, business interests and financial connections, to include those of my spouse and unmarried children below 18 years of age living with me in my household covering past years, to include the year I first assumed office in the government.”
But while the waiver authorizes the Ombudsman to look into Corona’s “secret” dollar accounts, the Senate impeachment court does not have the authority to do so. Corona’s dollar accounts are protected by Republic Act 6426, which protects foreign currency deposits from disclosure without the written permission of the depositor.
The prosecution panel has alleged that Corona opened five dollar accounts at the Katipunan branch of Philippine Savings Bank in October 2008 with an initial deposit of $700,000. It was also reported in the news that other sources have said that Corona has two dollar accounts in another bank in which the sum is “mind-boggling.”
During Garcia’s testimony before the impeachment court, he said that a Banko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) examiner told the bank to put a “PEP” notation on Corona’s bank records. “PEP” stands for “Politically Exposed Person,” which is required under AMLC rules to be placed on the records of elected and appointed public officials. However, sources said that Corona was at one time – or may still be – under investigation by AMLC.
Under the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2001 (Republic Act 9160), banks and similar institutions are required to report to AMLC within five working days any “suspicious transaction” – or “covered transaction” -- that exceeds P500,000 within one banking day. Under RA 9160, “money laundering” is defined as: “A crime whereby the proceeds of an unlawful activity are transacted or attempted to be transacted to make them appear to have originated from legitimate sources.”
During the testimony of Garcia, it was revealed that Corona had peso deposits of P8.5 million in 2009 and P29.6 million in 2010. However, he only declared P2.5 million in 2009 and P3.5 million in 2010 in his SALNs. His dollar deposits – which he promised to disclose in “due time” -- remain unknown.
*Court of public opinion
Given the predicament that Corona is in, he doesn’t have many options that he could use to extricate himself from his dilemma. At this point, his chances of acquittal depend on how he could secure the vote of at least eight senator-judges who might turn a blind eye to the strong – and damning – evidence that the prosecution presented. And since the impeachment trial is a political process, not a judicial process, each senator-judge would vote according to political expedience.
The question is: What would Corona do if he arrives at the conclusion that he has nary a chance of acquittal? Would he play a hand that could trigger a constitutional crisis? He knows that he could get a majority of the Supreme Court justices – the “Arroyo appointees” – to stop the impeachment trial before the senator-judges could vote. If so, would the impeachment court accept such an edict? And how about the people?
A recent Pulse Asia showed that 47% believe that Corona is guilty, 5% believe that he is innocent, and 43% are undecided. These numbers are sobering. As the impeachment trial goes into a five-week hiatus in observance of Lent, Corona should take a spiritual retreat and discern what is good for the country. He should – nay, must – heed the “judgment” of the court of public opinion. It’s time for him to face the music.
By Perry Diaz
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