Corona vs Ombudsman: What’s at stake?

It is likely that the Corona camp will question the impartiality of the Ombudsman and the credibility of her investigation

CARPIO-MORALES AGAINST CORONA. The Ombudsman will testify on Corona's alleged dollar accounts - a potential game changer.

MANILA, Philippines – Why would Chief Justice Renato Corona want the Ombudsman – a former colleague at the Supreme Court – to testify against him in his own impeachment trial?

On May 8, the defense asked the Senate, sitting as an impeachment court, to subpoena Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales so she can disclose her findings on Corona’s alleged $10-million bank accounts. The Senate signed the subpoena Wednesday, May 9, ordering her to appear on Monday, May 14.

Carpio-Morales earlier asked Corona, in a letter dated April 20, to explain his alleged US$10-M dollars in various accounts, saying these were not declared in his previous Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN).

The Ombudsman also said that the SALN form allows her to verify declarations made by public officials, including impeachable ones such as the Chief Justice. The Corona camp disagrees, insisting the Ombudsman has no jurisdiction over him.

Lawyers we interviewed said that letting the Ombudsman talk could help build the defense of Corona on two fronts: by tainting her image as an independent public official and by weakening the credibility of her investigation.

Insufficient, irrelevant?

Dean Antonio La Viña of the Ateneo School of Government thinks the Corona camp wants Carpio-Morales to testify because his lawyers may be certain that these bank deposits are “non-existent.” “Kumbaga nakuryente sina Harvey, Risa, etc.” he said. (The lawyers think that Harvey and Risa got burned by false information.)

Harvey Keh, former Akbayan partylist Rep Risa Hontiveros and others were also asked to appear before the court. Keh claimed he received documents from anonymous sources showing Corona has $2 million in his bank accounts.

Keh and Hontiveros are among the complainants in a forfeiture case filed with the Ombudsman against Corona. The complaint does not mention the alleged $10-M accounts but rather previous revelations made in the trial.

Corona himself has admitted he has dollar accounts, at least in the Philippine Savings Bank (PSBank), and that he would open them in due time. La Viña said though that what the Ombudsman has may not be the accounts that Corona said he owned.

A lawyer who used to work at the Ombudsman said that what the defense can show is that even if Carpio-Morales has evidence, what she has is not solid yet because her probe is far from complete.

“This is what they can say: everything’s in the preliminary stage, hence you really don’t have any findings yet,” he said. The lawyer asked not to be named because he now works at a top law firm. 

Christian Monsod, a lawyer and member of the body that crafted the 1987 Constitution, said the Ombudsman has to show the basis of her claim. “One would expect preliminary work from her, so that she will not be accused of doing this for political harassment,” he told Rappler.

Not his?

Corona could also say that the $10-million is not his, but money held in trust.

He said the same thing regarding the P34-M deposit he had in 3 PSbank accounts, which he said he did not declare in his SALN because it belonged to the Basa Guidote Enterprises Inc.  – a corporation owned by his family’s wife but which is the subject of an intense legal battle between Mrs Corona and the other Basa-Guidote heirs. (He withdrew the P34-M on Dec 12, 2011, the day he was impeached.)

According to the Commission on Civil Service though, assets held in trust should also be declared in the SALN. This was not yet stipulated in the old SALN form, however. The SALN baseline declaration form – introduced in 2009 and which mandates government officials to declare assets held in trust – is not yet being used after various groups from the public sector said it should be reviewed first. 

Corona’s problem

Talk on Corona’s dollar accounts resurfaced two months after the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order stopping the impeachment court from opening Corona’s dollar accounts in PSBank. The SC, voting 8-5, said that RA 6426, or The Foreign Currency Act, requires a written waiver from the depositor before the accounts could be disclosed. 

In 1997, however, the SC made an exception in its ruling on Salvacion v. Central Bank of the Philippines.  In this case, a rape victim sought damages from the offender. The SC ruled then that shielding the dollar deposit should not be given precedence over securing justice for the victim.

In the case of the PSBank TRO, the prosecution appealed the High Tribunal’s verdict. Yet the SC is taking its own sweet time resolving it. The matter will be on its agenda on June 26 yet; the Corona trial will most likely be over by then.

But here’s Corona’s problem. Despite the TRO, the Ombudsman can access the dollar accounts through the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC).

Since the AMLC is not covered by the TRO, the lawyer we interviewed saw no problem in an impending disclosure of Corona’s dollar accounts. The Ombudsman need not even obtain the records from the PSBank since the Council can provide her such, he added.

If the impeachment court allows Carpio-Morales to disclose the dollar accounts, then she can do the same before a regular court — such as the Sandiganbayan — if ever Corona is removed from office and a case against him is filed. 

This was what happened in the plunder case against then President Joseph Estrada. 

When the prosecutors subpoenaed documents on the bank accounts of one of Estrada’s sons – JV Ejercito – he invoked the bank secrecy act or RA 1405. The Sandiganbayan ruled however that RA 1405 was no longer applicable because the funds were the subject of litigation. 

Ejercito also invoked the “fruit of the poisonous tree principle,” where evidence secured in an illegal arrest or unreasonable search should not be admitted in court.”

In the Corona trial, the defense also raised this when it asked the impeachment court to quash the evidence on Corona’s bank accounts, saying the source of the bank records is suspect. (Prosecutor Reynato Umali said he a “small lady” handed him a brown envelope containing the documents showing Corona’s bank deposits).

But the Sandiganbayan said in Ejercito’s case that this principle could not be applied, because the source of the information on the bank accounts was the Ombudsman. 

Unpleasant history

Corona and Carpio-Morales are former colleagues in the High Tribunal.

Born and raised in Paoay, Ilocos Norte, Carpio-Morales is a cousin of Justice Antonio Carpio, who is touted as a possible successor to the post of chief justice. The Ombudsman also swore in President Benigno Aquino III when he assumed office in June 2010 – a privilege that usually belongs to the chief justice.  

In her retirement speech at the SC in June 2010, she lamented society’s demands of a leader. She said: “It has been observed that society itself is partly to blame for having created an artificial construct of a leader or even a professional, in general. Totally erasing the constitutional directive to ‘live modest lives,’ the situation now stands that it becomes socially acceptable or even perfectly normal for public servants to own 10 mansions and/or have 10 cars.”

This is not the first time that Carpio-Morales and Corona have found themselves on  opposing sides of an issue.

When she was still SC justice, Carpio-Morales was often in the minority, as she dissented in politically-sensitive cases involving former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. 

She was the lone dissenter in a 2010 SC decision that exempted the judiciary from the appointment ban. The ban bars the President from making any appointments two months before the elections and until his/her term ends on June 30. This SC ruling paved the way for Mrs Arroyo’s appointment of Corona in May 2010.

The 70-year-old Carpio-Morales was also the ponente (writer) of an SC ruling in February 2011 which upheld the constitutionality of the impeachment proceedings conducted by the House committee on justice against her predecessor, then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. Gutierrez was an Arroyo appointee.

Corona, unlike Carpio-Morales, voted in favor of Arroyo in the same cases, which court observers said cast a cloud of doubt on his independence. Corona had served as Mrs Arroyo’s chief of staff, presidential legal counsel and spokesman.

Part of ‘conspiracy’

Can bringing these up buttress the defense’s strategy in any way? 

Yes. Another lawyer who has helped prosecute public officials (but asked not to be named because of company policy) said the defense can parrot the claim of Corona that this is but part of a “conspiracy” against him – which can affect public perception.

Corona has repeatedly said that the Aquino administration is using all its resources to prosecute him because he voted for the outright distribution of Hacienda Luisita, a 6,000-hectare sugar plantation owned by Aquino’s family. Aquino divested his one-percent share in Hacienda Luisita in 2010.

The defense has employed this tactic before, when errors were spotted in the prosecution’s list of 45 properties that allegedly belonged to Corona (the number was decreased to 5). The Land Registration Authority official who gave the list – LRA administrator Eulalio Diaz III – turned out to be Aquino’s batchmate in Ateneo. The defense said this only proved that the Aquino administration is using all its resources to pin Corona down.

Incidentally, Diaz is a nephew of Carpio-Morales.

Rene Saguisag, one of Estrada’s lawyers in his plunder trial, said the testimony of Carpio-Morales will impact public perception the most. If the defense can show that she is acting merely upon Aquino’s wishes, the public may buy the ‘conspiracy’ line. 

Saguisag said though that if Carpio-Morales is able to establish that Corona indeed has dollar accounts, the public will cry for blood. “You cannot have a chief justice with low acceptability,” he said. –

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