How Ombudsman got access to CJ’s dollars

MANILA, Philippines - Now it is out, courtesy of the Office of the Ombudsman. Chief Justice Renato Corona allegedly has at least US$10-million worth of dollar deposits or nearly half a billion pesos, based on current exchange rates.

The Chief Justice is denying the money exists, but the Ombudsman said these are supposedly deposited in various banks.

“There are several bank accounts in PSBank and several other banks in your name, including those denominated in US dollars the aggregate value of which amounts to at least US$10,000,000,” reads the April 20, 2012 order of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales for Corona to explain his wealth that "purportedly grossly disproportionate to your salary and other lawful income." The Philippine Daily Inquirer revealed this order in its top story on Sunday, April 29.

The order was sent barely two weeks before the May 7 resumption of the Corona impeachment trial. The Senate, sitting as an impeachment court, has heeded an earlier Supreme Court order stopping the Philipine Savings Bank (PSBank) from disclosing Corona's alleged dollar accounts.

The prosecution has appealed the SC decision. But the High Tribunal has scheduled deliberations on it on June 26 yet.

How did the Office of the Ombudsman get around the bank secrecy law, which expressly states that no foreign currency deposits may be examined without the “written permission of the depositor?”

It's simple. Corona has given the Office of the Ombudsman the permission.

Waiver

The Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) is not only a document that requires public officials to declare their assets. It is also a waiver allowing the Office of the Ombudsman to verify declarations by the same public officials.

At the back of the form, a paragraph on top of a filer's signature reads:

WAIVER: SALN documents also act as waivers allowing the Ombudsman to verify assets declared by public officials

"I hereby authorize the Ombudsman or his duly representative to obtain and secure from all appropriate government agencies, including the Bureau of Internal Revenue, such documents that may show my assets, liabilities, net worth, business interests, and financial connections to include those of my spouse and unmarried children below 18 years of age living with me in my household covering past years to include the year I first assumed office in government."

When we asked Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales about the issue in a recent press conference, she explained: “The provision is such that the filer of the SALN authorizes the Ombudsman to determine the assets of the filer in agencies including the BIR.”

She refused at that time to discuss the status of the probe that her office is conducting on Corona's alleged dollar accounts.

Carpio-Morales is a former SC Associate Justice. She and Corona were both appointed to the High Court in 2002. She retired last year upon reaching the age of 70. She was immediately appointed to become the Ombudsman.

President Benigno Aquino III has been vocal about his trust and confidence in Carpio-Morales. In June 2010, he chose to take his oath before her instead of the Chief Justice.

Through AMLC

The Ombudsman gets access to the bank records—peso and dollar accounts—of public officials not directly from the banks themselves but through the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC).

The AMLC was very helpful, for instance, in the cases that the anti-graft body built against former Armed Forces of the Philippines comptrollers Carlos Garcia and Jacinto Ligot, who were found to have kept multi-million dollar accounts.

Under the law, banks and similar institutions must report to AMLC any transaction that exceeds P500,000. (It is equivalent to about US$11,500.) While not necessarily "suspicious transactions," these could prompt further investigation into the source of the deposits.

AMLC may further seek court approval to allow its representative to go to the banks, examine the bank records and freeze the accounts. But first, the AMLC has to prove to the court that there is probable cause that the deposits are investments related to "unlawful activity."

Submit report to Congress

Can the Office of the Ombudsman pursue cases against a sitting Chief Justice?

Corona -- as well as his defense lawyers -- maintained that the Ombudsman has no jurisdiction over him.

But in the Ombudsman's order asking Corona to explain his wealth, she argued: “While you may only be removed from office through impeachment proceedings, this office has… the power and duty to investigate you for any serious misconduct in the office for the purpose of filing a verified complaint for impeachment, if warranted. It was on this account that this Office conducted an initial evaluation on the complaints.” the Ombudsman said.

The Ombudsman cannot file a case before the Sandiganbayan while an impeachable official is still in office, but the anti-graft body may send its findings to the House of Representatives “to cause an impeachment complaint," explained a lawyer who previously worked in the Office of Ombudsman.

Informed sources told Rappler that the Ombudsman will be ready to submit her report in May.

This became an issue in 2009, when the Office of the Ombudsman - under Merceditas Gutierrez - cited presidential immunity in clearing then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of liabilities in the allegedly anomalous national broadband deal with Chinese company ZTE Corp.

The Senate Blue Ribbon committee, which also investigated the deal, recommended the investigation of Arroyo. Then committee chairman former senator Richard Gordon criticized the anti-graft body for clearing Mrs Arroyo.

“The Ombudsman has no business making a recommendation na wala siyang dapat panagutan. Dapat ibigay niya sa Kongreso, iyon ang tungkulin ng Kongreso dapat imbestigahin,” Gordon was quoted in this abs-cbnnews.com article.

Graft charges were eventually filed against Arroyo last year, after she stepped down from office.

In the impeachment trial, the Chief Justice is facing a maximum penalty of removal from office. Only when the impeachable officer has stepped down—either by removal, resignation, or retirement—can the Office of the Ombudsman file its case before the Sandiganbayan.

The same happened to ousted President Joseph Estrada. After his aborted impeachment trial, cases were filed against him before the Sandiganbayan. In September 2007, he was convicted of plunder and sentenced to life imprisonment but President Arroyo granted him pardon one month later.

February complaint

The anti-graft body’s probe on Corona’s assets stemmed from 3 complaints filed against Corona for allegedly violating anti-graft and anti-money laundering laws.

One of the complaints was led by former Akbayan Rep Risa Hontiveros, one of the original complainants in the impeachment bid against the Chief Justice.

It was filed in February, a week after the SC voted 8-5 to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) stopping the Philippine Savings Bank (PSBank) from further testifying and presenting documents about Corona’s dollar accounts. (Read the full complaint below)

“While we are aware that Mr. Corona is already subject of an impeachment complaint, nevertheless, we deem it necessary to file the instant complaint and to invoke the mandate of the Ombudsman….

“Aside from hiding real properties, Mr. Corona has apparently deposited multi-million amounts in several bank accounts in pesos and in dollars which were also undeclared in his SALNs and are, as such, prima facie ill-gotten. The government should immediately freeze or place in custodial egis these accounts…,” reads the complaint. - Rappler.com

Complaint filed led by Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros

March 2012 presentation of AMLC executive director Vicente Aquino on the operations of the council (source:amlc.gov.ph)