MANILA, Philippines – Since Day One, defense lawyers of former Chief Justice Renato Corona knew that he had dollar accounts.
They weren’t told the amount inside the accounts, or how many accounts there were, but lawyers knew they existed and that Corona did not declare them in his statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALN), Dennis Manalo told Rappler’s #TalkThursday on May 30.
Corona also told his lawyers why he didn’t declare them, sharing with his team his interpretation of the Foreign Currency Deposit Act (FCDA). Manalo admitted having known of Corona’s explanation all along — an interpretation Manalo himself agreed with.
“Remember the FCDA uses the word ‘absolute,'” said Manalo. “[The Constitution says] all public officials must report their assets but there’s a key phrase: ‘in the manner provided by law.'”
The manner is provided by the FCDA, he insisted, which provides for full confidentiality of dollar accounts.
Senator-judges ultimately found Corona’s interpretation erroneous, and became the reason which many of them cited in explaining their decision to convict Corona.
Manalo insisted, however, that the conclusion should not have been to impeach Corona. He offered two alternatives.
“The remedy here is to amend [the law to specify dollar inclusion],” he said. “There’s another remedy: to instruct the public officials to declare their dollar accounts,” he added.
Manalo acknowledged the political nature of the impeachment trial, admitting that he, too, as a lawyer, had been forced to do things he would not normally do because of the politicized process.
“Just to put things into the proper perspective, we were working on two fronts. The judicial side of the case and the political side of the case,” he said. “There are a lot of legal decisions that were dictated by political considerations. Things I would not have done as a lawyer, I was forced to agree to because the pressure was to go this way.”
He cited putting Corona on the stand as one of the things he was pressured to do.
“I don’t know if I should’ve given in as a lawyer,” he admitted. “Like the Chief testifying, normally I would want my client to shy away from a case. It would take a lot for me to let my client take the witness stand.”
The decision to put the Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales on the stand was also Corona’s own.
“That was a call that he made. He wanted us to call the Ombudsman and ask what is her basis for saying that he had $10-M in the letter,” Manalo said.
Many senator-judges said it was the testimony of the Ombudsman and Corona’s admission that he did not declare about P183-M in his SALNs, that tipped the scales in their decision to go for a conviction.
Morales told the court Corona that based on an Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) report, Corona had $10-M in fresh dollar deposits.
Surprised by vote
The Senate impeachment court, in their decision, voted 20-3 to oust Corona.
Manalo admitted he and the defense team were surprised by the huge gap, saying vote expectations changed day by day.
“I think entering prior the testimony of the former Chief Justice, we were really hopeful that votes would be in our favor. During the testimony we were getting information that things were going well. Then this incident where he got this hypoglycemic episode, that’s when things went against us,” said Manalo. “I think Friday, when ex-Chief Justice Corona gave the unconditional waiver, we had a different pulse again for the vote.”
He said he was baffled by what transpired between then and the voting.
“But prior to closing, we don’t know why the pulse started to change, that was even prior to closing. We were getting feedback that our numbers were dwindling, dwindling fast,” he said.
Manalo was one of the original lawyers invited to a meeting with Corona when the impeachment complaint was first filed by the prosecution. He said they were asked to look at the complaint to see if it had any basis. After he read it, Manalo said he volunteered to join the defense team.
“When I saw the complaint, I immediately saw how weak it was,” said Manalo. “If this was a real case, that complaint would’ve been dismissed. It would not have moved forward.”
‘History will decide’
He reiterated his respect for the court’s decision but emphasized several anomalies in the trial: the admission of the AMLC report as evidence even if it was unauthenticated (meaning, it did not have a court order); the failure to consider Morales as a prosecution witness after the defense presented her as a hostile witness; and the lack of evidence that led to a conviction — all of which, he said, would not have made the cut in regular court.
After the verdict was served, discussions of Corona possibly challenging the decision through the Supreme Court spread as media awaited the defense’s next step.
Two days after, the defense team announced that Corona would no longer appeal the verdict.
Manalo revealed that it was his understanding from the beginning that they would not push through with that option. After the decision, defense counsels headed to Medical City to visit Corona, where they held a meeting.
“The defense team put together all the pros and cons, and presented it to the Chief Justice and there was a discussion among members. From my understanding, there would be no appeal. The Chief would not appeal this. His message to us then was, the decision rendered last Tuesday will actually be a matter for history to decide,” he said.
“You know sometimes, because of the euphoria, people think that what most of us are doing is right. But as time goes by, they realize the error, probably not as much people are as much sympathetic as they were,” Manalo added. “When the so-called Edsa 2 happened…look at how people judge it now. A lot of people, even our late President Cory Aquino apologized to former President Joseph Estrada for her participation in Edsa Dos.”
Manalo maintained his belief in Corona’s innocence and expressed hope that the impeachment trial, unfortunate as the result was for the defense, would bring the country some good.
“People are saying it would affect our system of checks and balances but you know, laws are only as good as people who run it…if we will be able to put in people who will make people work things for us. I think that is the key,” he said.
“Like any great moment in our history, it always has the potential to lead us to greener pastures, but whether we will actually seize that opportunity or not…it is quite discomforting that there are times we let it pass.” – Rappler.com