Why senators got obsessed with bank secrecy

Senators have different motivations for pursuing the source of the prosecution’s bank documents.

ANNEX A VS. ORIGINAL. Senators compare the original bank records of Chief Justice Renato Corona with the documents from the prosecution. Photo by Joseph Vidal/PRIB/Senate Pool

MANILA, Philippines – From a small lady to a folded document left at a congressman’s gate to a Bangko Sentral audit. With the twists and turns, the story on the source of the prosecution’s alleged bank documents has preoccupied senators.

In the past days, the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona revolved around this single story. Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile led a number of senator-judges in grilling Philippine Savings Bank officials to get to the bottom of the issue.

The million peso question is why? Why were many senators so engrossed in the source and the broader issue of bank secrecy? Why take time pursuing what some dismiss as a peripheral issue?

Senators’ manifestations and statements in weeks 5 and 6 of the trial reveal different motivations:

1) ‘Were we deceived with false documents?’ 

As early as last week, Enrile said he is curious about the source of the documents to find out whether or not the impeachment court was deceived into issuing a subpoena for Corona’s bank records. The prosecution attached the alleged bank documents to its supplemental request for a subpoena.

“I have the right to inquire because I don’t want to be deceived in issuing a compulsory process like a subpoena duces tecum based on false evidence,” he told reporters. “I am interested to find out whether there is deceit in the request.”

Enrile said the source of the document has serious implications on the case. Asked if he could revoke the subpoena on Corona’s bank records if the source proves to be illegal, he said, “Yes, that is under my control as the issuing authority.”

The presiding officer said the court will determine if a falsification merits the exclusion of the evidence, and the liability of those responsible.

Yet Enrile may only be trying to confirm what he already knows. He said last week that the court already has information about “the manner of the leak.”

“I’m not born yesterday. I’m telling you if I pursue the question and cross-examine, I’m sure I can bring out the truth,” he said in an interview. “The easiest thing to crack is when there’s falsehood.”

But why, in the first place, did the Senate issue a subpoena when the prosecution made it clear that it could not vouch for the authenticity of the documents?

Enrile responded, “We presume good faith but it is the responsibility of the party asking the help of a court to see to it that the ethics of the profession must always be there to guide.”

He clarified that he is not passing the buck. “I assume responsibility for issuing the subpoena but I have no time to go beyond and I did not expect the witness to say [the documents were fake].”

On Day 21 of the trial, Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago said she too found it important to dwell on the authenticity of the bank documents from the prosecution because of the falsus in unum, falsus in omnibus (false in one thing, false in everything) rule of evidence.

“Once the court is convinced that one panel has been foisting a fake document on the court, the court may then justify indulging the disputable presumption that if one panel has been lying on one particular, then it has been lying on all particulars and will have to disbelieve everything that that panel offers in evidence,” Santiago said on Tuesday, February 21. 

Santiago said the issue might overshadow the need to hurry and finish the trial “because if we can prove that the signature specimen cards were falsified, then perhaps the court might lean towards considering the maxim falsus in unum falsus in omnibus.

2) ‘After Corona, are we next?’

Sen. Joker Arroyo has a different reason for asking about the leak.

On Monday, February 21, Arroyo said the possibility that the leak came from an audit by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) and the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) of PSBank in September to November 2010 disturbed him.

Arroyo recalled that in 2003 when the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA) was enacted, the Senate voted 12-8-1 against relaxing the restrictions in the law. The restrictions include barring inquiries into bank deposits without a court order.

Those who voted not to relax the restrictions were the following: Arroyo, Senators Edgardo Angara, Teresa “Tessie” Aquino-Oreta, Rodolfo Biazon, Luisa 3“Loi” Ejercito-Estrada, Gregorio Honasan, Panfilo Lacson, Loren Legarda, John Osmeña, Aquilino Pimentel Jr., Vicente Sotto III, and Manuel Villar.

“The principal reason why they voted against it was that the power that would be granted to AMLA might be used for political vendetta and persecution. The president then was President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo so it was not relaxed,” Sen. Arroyo said.

Senators were divided on the passage of the AMLA under the Arroyo administration.

In hearings, they asked BSP officials about the existence of an alleged watch list of accounts to be monitored, including those of politicians and government officials.

Sen. Arroyo suspected that the Arroyo-era Malacañang made the watch list or ordered an intelligence officer or the police to do so. Angara also feared that the law will be used for political persecution and harassment.

Eight years later, talks of a leak renew fears of persecution. Sen. Arroyo, an Aquino critic, believes this administration is no different and harassment can still happen.

“If we offend Malacañang, if we do not follow Malacañang, they can proceed against us from the information gathered through AMLA. It’s a disturbing thought,” said Arroyo.

Other senators who voted for the restrictions in 2003 have not voiced views similar to Arroyo’s. Yet Legarda and Honasan also asked several questions on how the prosecution got the documents, and the implications on Corona’s right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

3) ‘Who protects the businessmen?’ 

For Sen. Ralph Recto, the discussion goes beyond the legal to the financial.

Recto filed a resolution seeking to review laws on bank secrecy and foreign deposits.

Recto said he got “friendly admonitions” from members of the banking community on the impact of waiving or liberally applying banking laws. The documents from the prosecution involve dollar accounts, which under the law should be kept confidential except with the consent of the depositor to disclose these.

“The sum of the friendly heads-up that I have been getting is that this may result in a complete breakdown of confidence in the banking system,” Recto said in a statement. 

“Businessmen would be pondering the question, ‘If the current banking laws would not be able to protect us, who would?’”

But is the trial the best venue to address all this?

After spending days asking about the leak, senators have yet to settle the issue. Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV and the prosecution said it is about time the impeachment court puts the issue to rest.

Trillanes said that while the source of the leak is relevant, another body, such as the Senate committee on banks, should  investigate it.

It remains to be seen though if the Senate will indeed move on from the issue once and for all.

On Day 21, the Senate proceeded to take up Article 3 but senators have said they still want to ask Quezon City Rep. Jorge Banal how he got alleged bank documents and why he asked PSBank’s help in verifying these.

Deceit? Lies? Harassment?

The bigger question is what happens next and if this discovery should unhinge the prosecution’s case.

Senators will have to weigh the prosecution’s possible deception against the original question: Did Corona himself deceive and lie to the public in declaring his assets and liabilities? – Rappler.com

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