MANILA, Philippines – When senators meet in caucus on Monday, February 6, they will not just go through the motions in the literal and figurative sense. Key issues are up for resolution in the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona. The focal point of the meeting is the classic dilemma: secrecy or transparency?
The Senate will deliberate on the prosecution’s requests to subpoena Corona’s bank records, as well as documents on Supreme Court cases.
Even before decisions are made, senators are already aware that their decisions will have an impact not just on the trial, but also on the banking industry, relations among the branches of government, and accountability of government officials and institutions.
Here are the main issues in question:
1. Bank confidentiality vs. transparency
The prosecution is asking the Senate to subpoena bank officials from the Philippine Savings Bank (PSBank) and the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) as well as the bank records of Corona, his wife, Cristina, and his joint accounts with daughter Carla and son-in-law Constantino Castillo III.
Prosecutors believe the bank records will show that Corona has money “greatly in excess” of the amount declared in his Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs). Citing supposed documents from an anonymous source, they are zeroing in on Corona’s alleged dollar account with an initial deposit of $700,000 or about P34 million.
Bank secrecy and dollar accounts
The prosecution said that the bank secrecy law grants an exemption in cases of an impeachment. The panel thinks this also includes dollar deposit accounts, contradicting a PSBank statement.
Last week, the bank said that the law requires it to keep confidential all accounts, including those under its foreign currency deposit unit.
Prosecution spokesperson Rep. Miro Quimbo said in a press conference, “Hindi porque’t nasa foreign denominated deposit ay exempted na ito from the secrecy exemption. Otherwise, ang gagawin lang ng mga tiwali ay ililipat ang pera sa peso at ilalagay nila sa foreign currency (Just because it’s a foreign denominated deposit, it doesn’t mean that the account is not included in the secrecy exemption. Otherwise, what the corrupt will do is to just transfer the money in pesos to a foreign currency).”
Over the weekend, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago stressed the sensitive nature of the decision, citing implications on the banking industry and laws.
“The banking industry depends on confidentiality for success. These banks are so successful in attracting depositors from all over the world,” Santiago told the Inquirer.
“We, senators, should think very carefully about whether we shall continue to support the law on the secrecy of bank deposits or grant an exception at an impeachment trial.”
For the defense team, the debate may not even have to be about bank secrecy. Defense spokesperson Tranquil Salvador III said the bank records relate to Article 2.4 or the charge on ill-gotten wealth.
The Senate already ruled against the presentation of evidence on Corona’s alleged ill-gotten wealth.
2. Judicial review vs. disclosure
The second contentious topic that the senators will settle in the caucus is summoning the records of a secretive institution, the Supreme Court.
Prosecutors want the Senate to subpoena records of Supreme Court cases included in the impeachment complaint:
- flip-flopping on the case of the Flight Attendants and Stewards Association of the Philippines (Article 3)
- flip-flopping on the cityhood cases, and the promotion of Dinagat Island into a province (Article 5)
- granting a temporary restraining order on the travel ban against the Arroyos (Article 7)
Corona’s lawyers opposed the prosecution motion, invoking the separation of powers between the different branches of government.
Salvador was quoted in The Philippine Star as saying that the Senate must also respect the power of judicial review and consider it confidential. He added that Supreme Court rules state that only justices can deliberate on matters pending before the tribunal.
“This cannot be open to public scrutiny because, most especially now, these cases are still pending and it is for this reason that the Supreme Court should not be influenced by whether it’s a popular or unpopular position to decide on the merits of the case,” said Salvador.
During the trial last Thursday, Enrile seemed to echo the defense’s stand when he told the prosecution to justify their request for subpoenas, specifically for SC records.
“We have to observe the separation and co-equality of the 3 branches of government,” said Enrile who presides over the impeachment trial.
What about Vidal?
Despite this pronouncement, the Senate has already summoned a Supreme Court official and documents in the first week of the trial. SC Clerk of Court Enriqueta testified on Day 3 of the trial, and was ordered to submit Corona’s SALNs even if SC rules impose restrictions on their disclosure.
The prosecution insists that the nature of the trial necessitates the release of the SC records. Calling it an extraordinary proceeding, Quimbo said, “This is one of those occasions one branch is allowed to evaluate and cross over to the next.”
What happens in caucuses?
Incidentally, the issues on secrecy will be resolved in secret. Caucuses are held behind closed doors, with senators saying the meetings are too boring and technical for the public.
While this may be true, details like which senator lobbied and voted for what decision are often left unknown. Usually, only the decision will be made public through a ruling that Enrile announces during the trial.
The senators, however, can contest the decision in court by asking to divide the house, as Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano did when the court tackled the request to summon the Coronas.
Secrecy or transparency? The senators’ decisions will be out on Monday, hopefully along with a disclosure on how they arrived at the answer. – Rappler.com