Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Some senators of the Philipplines find Chief Justice Renato Corona's explanation for not reporting his bank accounts in his financial disclosures "absurd" and his waiving his right to confidentiality an attempt at damage control.
Yesday, three days before the Senate impeachment court decides Corona's case, Senator Aquilino Pimentel III said the Chief Justice's defense would "rise and fall" on his explanation that his US dollar accounts were confidential, and his peso accounts were "co-mingled funds."
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago said Corona's not reporting those accounts in his statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) was not an impeachable offense, but some of her colleagues held a different view.
"That is a totally erroneous interpretation," Senator Franklin Drilon said in a phone interview. "There is no question that a dollar deposit is an asset, and it's a twisted logic that you need not report because it's strictly confidential. That's absurd."
Drilon added, "If you interpret it in that manner, then a corrupt official will simply convert the money he has stolen into dollars, and deposit these, and he has no obligation to report it."
The Foreign Currency Deposits Act (FCDA), which guarantees the confidentiality of dollar accounts, bars the banks, not the depositors, from disclosing information on those accounts, Drilon said.
Senator Francis Pangilinan agreed. "This kind of legal reasoning renders the SALN law and the constitutional provisions on full disclosure of assets, liabilities and net worth useless," he said. "It opens the floodgates for all corrupt public officials to open dollar accounts and co-mingle peso accounts with their relatives to justify the filing of SALNs that are completely and totally inaccurate."
In his second appearance at his trial in the Senate on Friday, Corona admitted to having four US dollar accounts containing, according to him, US$2.4 million and around 80.7 million pesos ($1.84 million) in peso deposits.
Asked why he did not report those accounts in his SALNs, Corona explained that the confidentiality of dollar accounts under the FCDA was absolute, while the peso accounts consisted of "co-mingled funds," including the savings of members of his family and 34.7 million pesos ($792,418) in proceeds from the sale of a Manila property owned by the business company of his wife's family.
Corona also submitted an unconditional waiver on the confidentiality of his accounts, replacing the original waiver he offered on Tuesday on the condition that Drilon and the 188 lawmakers who impeached him last December to sign a similar waiver.
After Friday's hearing, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile set the closing arguments of the defense and prosecution for Monday and the vote for the verdict for Tuesday.
Pimentel admitted being so swayed by Corona's testimony on Friday that he would "go over this and his reasoning 10 times before I make up my mind."
"Initially, I'm not convinced. Maybe there is something more profound to it," Pimentel said. "I'll study it 10 times," he said by phone. "His case will rise and fall with [this] defense."
In a phone interview, Santiago, a former trial court judge, said Corona's not reporting his US dollar and peso accounts in his financial disclosures did not constitute an impeachable offense.
She said the defense lawyers actually failed to "accentuate" the argument that the law on SALN is a general law while the FCDA is a special law, and under the rule of statutory construction, a "special law prevails over a general law."
She said there's no Supreme Court decision on which of the two laws should prevail.
Why not impeachable
"Since the laws are inconsistent and we can't reconcile them, we follow the rule of statutory construction that special law prevails over the general law," Santiago said. "And that is supported by the widespread practice in this country that no public officer includes dollar deposits in SALN."
Explaining further why not reporting was not an impeachable offense, Santiago said: "An impeachable offense means that there has been such grave violation of the Constitution that the public official should not stay one minute longer in his post since he would have been proved to be a liar, a thief, or a fraud. In the present case, there are genuine issues of law involved. Since there are pending issues there is no behavioral ethic to guide the public officer. It's the duty of Congress to amend either the SALN law or the Foreign Currency Deposits Act. So these doubts could be raised, but the ambiguity of the law should not be held against any person affected by it. It's only natural that a person will choose an interpretation most favorable to him."
Besides, in determining if an official who omitted some items in the SALN committed an impeachable offense, "motive and intent are crucial," Santiago said.
"If there was no motive, no intent and no crime has been committed, and no impeachable crime has been committed, so you wait for the prosecution to disprove all these legal presumptions," she said.
Senator Gregorio Honasan II, Drilon, Pangilinan and Pimentel held a different view.
Honasan said in a phone interview that Corona's explanation was only his "legal, rational explanation."
"Is this trial, political as it is, just all about legality and rationality?" Honasan said. "It's about credibility. It's about moral fitness. It's about many other things."
Honasan said: "He's the highest magistrate of the highest court of the land. Do we impose higher standards on him, or do we not? He's supposed to be the exemplar. His position should be morally, legally, ethically unassailable."
In the end, Honasan said, he would make a "conscience call" on what is good for the country.
Drilon said: "An employee of the Supreme Court was dismissed for not including his [market] stall in his SALN, and we apply higher standards on the Chief Justice."
Pangilinan cited a Supreme Court ruling in 2011 that upheld the conviction of a former mayor for several counts of falsification of public records "for failing to disclose in his SALN for nine years that a relative within the fourth degree of consanguinity was employed in the government."
Pimentel said nondisclosure was impeachable "if the judge is convinced that the nondisclosure was meant to hide assets from the eyes of the public."
But Pangilinan said he would study if the foreign currency deposits law was applicable to Corona's case, and see if the law could be "harmonized" with the SALN law to achieve their respective purposes.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada said in a phone interview that he found Corona "credible," but the Chief Justice's claim of confidentiality was "debatable."
"If you have pesos, and you convert them into dollars, does that mean you would no longer declare them? That's debatable," he said.
Headed for acquittal?
His defense lawyers believe Corona is headed for acquittal. His testimony about the confidentiality of the his US dollar accounts and his peso accounts being "co-mingled funds" was his best defense yet, defense lawyer Rico Paolo Quicho said.
"He had been forthright and candid. With candor, he faced all the questions of the senators. All the signs lead to his acquittal," Quicho said in a phone interview.
Responding to claims that Corona's unconditional waiver was an afterthought, Quicho said this was Corona's response to the "clamor for accountability and transparency."
"The Chief Justice showed he was open to public transparency and accountability," Quicho said.
The impeachment court had been prepared to subpoena the bank managers for Monday's hearing, but the defense did not request it, Drilon said.
During the caucus that had been prompted by the waiver on Friday, Santiago asked lead defense counsel Serafin Cuevas if the defense would request a subpoena. Cuevas said no, Drilon said.
Drilon said: "Why did Cuevas not request it? You know why. If they ask for a subpoena, whatever the bank managers will testify on or whatever bank documents they will produce will be binding on Corona. That indicates they were not prepared to be bound by what the bank records will show."
Quicho scoffed at this: "Why do we need to subpoena the bank managers? To prove that there was no ill-gotten wealth? If the prosecution wants to really confirm that testimony of the Chief Justice, they could use the waiver, but they opted not to because they're afraid of the truth."
Who's telling the truth?
Santiago said the bank managers could have bridged the gap between the claims by Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales that Corona kept $10 million to $12 million in 82 accounts, and Corona's counterclaim of having only $2.4 million in four accounts.
"If the defense had requested a subpoena, the bank managers would have been able to settle easily the dispute between the defendant and the Ombudsman," Santiago said.
She went on: "Who is telling the truth? This is important because each one of these two antipathetic parties is still in government position. The liar should be removed from office and prosecuted, at least for perjury. But without the bank managers, if Corona is acquitted there will always hang a cloud of doubt over the heads of these protagonists."