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Extraordinary gang-up

Publication Date : 18-05-2012


This week’s hearings of the impeachment trial of Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona unmasked the deployment of the resources of independent state institutions to provide evidence intended to convict him on charges of betrayal of public trust.

The evidence consisted of reports from constitutionally mandated institutions such as the Office of the Ombudsman, the Commission on Audit, and the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) in what appeared to be an  extraordinary gang-up to influence the decision of the Senate impeachment court on whether to convict or  acquit Corona.

The witnesses in the hearings also testified that derogatory information on Corona’s numerous  bank accounts was based on unverified documents, which offended Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, presiding judge of the Senate impeachment court, and Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago—two of the finest legal minds in the tribunal—and prompted them to rebuke the witnesses.

These developments took place as the tribunal was winding down the trial to end by May 30. After four months of trial, the Chief Justice will be presented by the defence as its last witness at the climactic phase of the trial on Tuesday. He will face his detractors and accusers for the first time and defend himself from their accusations.

In the past months, Corona has been mercilessly and relentlessly pilloried in the media by administration officials led by President Benigno Aquino III, and sections of the media hostile to the chief justice, in addition to the prosecutors from the House of Representatives. It has been an administration-fueled trial by publicity, whose viciousness has few parallels in this country’s recent political history.

The overriding theme of the impeachment case, which seeks Corona’s dismissal from office, accuses him of being unfit to remain in office for betrayal of public trust, with the supposed offences spelled out in the Articles of Impeachment. Corona’s first and final appearance at the impeachment court is considered crucial for the senator-judges in determining his innocence or guilt.

To convict, 16 votes from the 23 members of the tribunal are required.

According to prevailing speculation, the outcome of the case is still touch and go, and no one is confident enough to claim that the prosecution has lined up the necessary number of votes. The senator-judges continue to insist that they would vote independently and would be guided by evidence.

At last Monday’s hearing, the trial took a dramatic turn when Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales testified that Corona had kept more than US$12 million in “fresh deposits” in five banks, where he maintained 82 accounts between April 2003 and early this year.

Ironically, Morales testified as a hostile witness for the  defence. The prosecution described the testimony as a “bombshell” and a devastating setback to the defence for introducing her as a witness.

The Office of the Ombudsman had been investigating Corona’s unexplained wealth, and Corona has denied holding at least $10 million in  bank accounts.  Morales testified that with the assistance of the Commission on Audit, her office came up with the total amount of Corona’s  dollar deposits based on a report that the AMLC had prepared.

She submitted to the impeachment court a 17-page report from the AMLC. This was how the Ombudsman, the AMLC and the Commission on Audit came into the act of the impeachment trial, which is under the sphere of the Senate.

In effect, Corona is now undergoing two parallel investigations on two fronts—the impeachment tribunal and Office of the Ombudsman.

Questions: Can Corona survive these pincers? And how can he survive these?

Ombudsman Morales said she had also furnished Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. a copy of her fact-finding report of Corona’s alleged unexplained wealth, hoping this could be used in initiating another impeachment case against Corona. Obviously, they are leaving nothing to chance.

On Wednesday, the interventions of civil society groups in the trial drew fire from Senator Santiago and Senate President Enrile. Santiago was provoked to denounce Harvey Keh, lead convenor of the self-proclaimed “good governance” group Kaya Natin, for acting on unverified information from an “anonymous source”.

She said the documents could have been made up by anyone. She warned that Keh was now in danger, “in jeopardy of being charged criminally”, for violating such laws as the Foreign Currency Deposits Act.

According to the Inquirer’s report on Thursday, on Day 39 of the impeachment trial, Keh admitted submitting to Enrile a set of unverified documents on alleged bank transactions that claimed to show that Corona owned $10 million in bank accounts.

Enrile pointed out that Keh had come to his office, accompanied  by a television crew, purportedly to make sure that the event would "published".

Enrile told Keh: “I am offended and insulted as the presiding officer of this court, and I am ordering  you  to show cause why you should not be cited in contempt. You are trying to  influence this court.” Keh apologised.


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