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MANILA, Philippines – In the recent hearings in the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona, not a few have taken note that certain senator-judges, including the presiding Senator-judge Juan Ponce Enrile, have begun to voice out the proposition that not all omissions or mis-declarations in a Statement of Assets Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) should be deemed impeachable offenses in the same way that not all infractions constitute high crimes.
However, in Dean Tony La Viña’s analysis, “The Prosecution’s Mistake,” he unequivocally posits the view that the mere filing by a Chief Justice of an untruthful SALN is an impeachable offense. This is because under the provisions of law and the Constitution on SALN obligations, the nature of those obligations are such that mere untruthfulness in a SALN by a Chief Justice, considering his high public office, should merit impeachment.
As a result, Dean La Viña asserts that there is really no requirement to prove that Justice Corona amassed ill-gotten wealth and that the prosecution’s apparent fixation with doing so is a strategy they must immediately abandon.
But is that tactic really a mistake? Perhaps not.
Let me preface my take on this issue with an agreement that a SALN must indeed contain nothing less than a true detailed statement of assets and liabilities as otherwise, it would not be the kind of disclosure that would achieve the objectives for which it is required.
Private corporations that go public are by law subject to very stringent standards of disclosure and the penalties for untruthful statements or material omissions are quite expansive and severe. These requirements, which are no different from those imposed globally, are intentionally designed to protect the public.
Why should the standards for our public officials be any less? To be sure, protecting the public from its own public officials is just as imperative.
The due preparation and accurate accomplishment of a SALN should therefore be an exceedingly important and serious undertaking of any public official.
An incomplete, false and misleading SALN is a disservice to the public.
If is shown that there is a lack of diligence or worse, deliberate effort, to be less than forthright, such public official should not be qualified to be one. (Dean La Viña argues that intent and malice are not relevant factors but I am willing to concede that inadvertent errors should be excused, human that we are).
Cynical but not baseless
But the view that as a matter of strategy, all the prosecution should do to secure a conviction of Chief Justice Corona is to establish that his SALN is not completely true and detailed, ignores the very real possibility—given an admittedly cynical, though not baseless, perception of Philippine elective officials—that a good number of the congressmen and senators have themselves been less than diligent or creatively deceitful in the preparation and accomplishment of their SALNs.
To convict the Chief Justice, therefore, merely because there is a mismatch between his actual assets and liabilities and those that appear in his SALN, may actually not be to the best interests of the senator-judges nor of the prosecutors and the House they represent.
From a skeptical public’s perspective, it is almost as if they are themselves on trial with respect to the SALN issue.
Moreover, as there is no precedent for what constitutes an impeachable offense—all previous impeachment attempts did not reach a final verdict at the Senate—the senator-judges find themselves in a position to define that standard in this case.
It therefore presents itself as a fitting precedent-setting opportunity for them to declare, and benefit by such declaration, that misstatements, under-declarations, omissions, half-truths, etc. in a SALN may be unfortunate, even reprehensible, but by themselves are not high crimes, and so may be rectified.
It may not be a wonder then that under these circumstances, in order to strip Corona of his office, the appropriate strategy in relation to the SALN issue in fact requires the assertion of a SALN-related ground in addition to mere SALN untruthfulness.
Ill-gotten wealth charges may therefore just be the thing that conveniently sets Corona’s situation apart from the rest.
But unless the prosecution finds a way to maneuver around the fact that the senator-judges have disallowed the presentation of evidence on ill-gotten wealth, it may be the case that their Article 2, their supposedly strongest ground, is doomed.
In that case, the ultimate strategy for the prosecution may be to call Clarissa Ocampo as their next witness and make sure she brings two envelopes. – Rappler.com
(The author is a lawyer who, because of relationships he has with persons involved in the impeachment proceedings, decided to use a pseudonym.)