Questions persist as trial goes on 6-week break

Carmela Fonbuena

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The Senate impeachment court will take a 6-week break

MANILA, Philippines – The impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona is taking a 6-week break with big questions hanging over his central defense, his wife’s family corporation Basa Guidote Enterprises Inc. (BGEI).

On Day 34 of the trial, the defense panel’s surprise witness, former Mayor Lito Atienza, testified on the city’s 2001 purchase of a BGEI-owned lot in Sampaloc for P34.7-M. City hall issued the check to the Chief Justice’s wife, Maria Cristina.

The saga of the Basa Guidote Enterprises Inc. is important to both the prosecution and the defense.

The defense mentioned it to try to explain Corona’s accounts with Philippine Saving Bank (PSBank) and his purchase of at least one property.

The prosecution has however insisted that Corona is using the money of BGEI as an excuse, suggesting that Corona’s assets are ill-gotten. (The impeachment court barred the prosecution from presenting evidence on this accusation.)

“We stand by our presentation of evidence that all the BPI (Bank of Philippine Islands) and PSBank accounts are accounts belonging to the Chief Justice,” said lead prosecutor Niel Tupas Jr.

Both claimed Atienza’s testimony was favorable to them.

Central defense

The House of Representatives never mentioned BGEI in the impeachment complaint it filed against Corona.

But it was first made known to the public when the Chief Justice’s Statement of Assets and Liabilities (SALNs) were disclosed.

In 2003, he reported an P11-M “advance” from the BGEI. This cash advance supposedly funded the purchase of Corona’s property in La Vista, an asset later transferred to his daughter Carla.

When Corona’s accounts with the PSBank were exposed, the defense again used the Basa-Guidote corporation as justification.

PSBank president Pascual Garcia III testified that Corona on Dec 12, 2011—the day he was impeached—withdrew P36-M from 3 PSBank peso time deposits. The amount was transferred to a checking account. (Garcia didn’t say if the checking account was eventually closed.)

Corona’s counsels said that money belonged to BGEI. Corona himself said in media interviews that he withdrew the money to spare it from being dragged into his case.

After all, the amounts – the check issued by the Manila City government to Mrs Corona in 2001 and what her husband withdrew from PSBank a decade later – almost match.

Defense lawyer Rico Quicho said Atienza’s testimony laid the foundation for their defense that BGEI was earning money and that Mrs Corona controlled the company’s income.

But prosecution spokesperson Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara said Atienza’s testimony is problematic.

“Former Mayor Atienza testified that Mrs Corona received P34.7-M… but they have to answer why it found its way to the Chief Justice’s accounts,” Angara said.

The story is far from complete.

Quicho said they will present 3 to 4 more witnesses on Basa Guidote when trial resumes on May 7.

Atienza favored Coronas?

Several questions persist.

City hall issued the check payment to Cristina Corona, not to BGEI. Some senators and the prosectuion argued that the check should have been under the corporation’s name. (The corporation is a subject of a bitter family dispute between Cristina and her Basa relatives.)

The prosecution also questioned why the Manila City government paid P34.7-M for the BGEI property when its earlier expropriation order indicated a budget of only P30-M.

Atienza argued that the expropriation was canclled to make way for a negotiated sale.

Senators raised questions about the transaction.

“I believe that, through the answers of the witness, there was some degree of lack of due diligence and extraordinary diligence in handling funds for the people of Manila,” said Senator Franklin Drilon.

Senator Sergio Osmeña III also noted that the check payment was deposited on the same day city hall released the check. Given the usual bureaucratic delays, the speed of the release suggested that “VIPs” were involved, Osmeña said.

Osmeña tried to link the Chief Justice to the transaction. He said the check was deposited in a Landbank branch in Malacañang, where at that time the Chief Justice was working as presidential legal counsel to then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Atienza said he could not have favored an ally of Arroyo because he was then with the political camp of ousted President Joseph Estrada.

Quicho maintained the cross-examination of Atienza and the questions of the senator-jurors did not hurt their case.

“If there were issues in the transaction, they have nothing to do with Mrs Corona and the Chief Justice. It was more of trying to get back at the mayor, not the Chief Justice,” he said without elaborating.

Estranged allies

Atienza used to be a Liberal Party stalwart.

During the term of President Arroyo, he and Drilon disagreed on whether to abandon or continue supporting her amid calls for her to resign. This led to a bitter split, and Drilon later won the battle for control of the party.

Atienza returns to the witness stand on May 7.

There are concerns that the 6-week break will diminish public interest in the trial, or that the evidence already presented would be forgotten.

“It favors the defense in the sense that they have more time to prepare for their defense, we didn’t have that luxury,” said Angara.

But Quicho said the break is good for everyone.

“It will help everyone, not only the prosecution but also the defense, the senator judges and all the media practitioners. We have a breathing space. It’s good for us to recuperate and re-evaluate our situation.” – Rappler.com

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