Corona: Checkmate in his second year?
MANILA, Philippines - May 17 marks the second year of Chief Justice Renato Corona as the leader of the highest court of the land and one of the 3 branches of the government, the judiciary.
Political analysts say, however, that if he is unable to prove he is still morally fit to stay in his position, it might also be his last.
Corona is the subject of a historic impeachment trial. Accused of betrayal of public trust, the Chief Justice could either be convicted or acquitted by the senator-judges for allegedly failing to include $12-M in fresh deposits and at least P31.7-M in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth.
What bolstered these allegations was the testimony of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales on May 14 and 15. From the witness stand, Carpio-Morales -- who was once Corona's colleague in the Supreme Court (SC) -- repeatedly waved documents from the Anti-Money Laundering Council showing the transactional balances amounting to at least $10-M from accounts allegedly owned by Corona.
Carpio-Morales also showed a PowerPoint presentation showing the movement of millions of dollars in 82 bank accounts under the name of Renato Coronado Corona. Her testimony was considered a turning point in the trial -- a game changer, as what Dean Antonio La Viña of the Ateneo School of Government wrote.
Hours before Carpio-Morales's explosive testimony, Corona was at the SC lobby to attend the second of the 9-day masses conducted for him. He sat beside his wife Cristina, and was accompanied by his children Carla and Francis. The SC has been holding novena-masses from time to time since January this year, when the impeachment trial started.
After the one-hour mass on May 14, Corona walked to the podium. In a soft voice, he started the novena.
Since the impeachment trial began, having the Chief Justice stand before a rostrum has been a familiar sight, though the images and the messages he has delivered behind it have been different.
Corona, at times, could be snarky, biting and aggressive. In front of SC judges and personnel, with a microphone and banners displaying support for him, he could sneer and dispel insults.
"Malaki daw akong hadlang...tama, malaki akong hadlang sa isang nagmamadaling maging bise-presidente na natalo noong 2010! (They said I served as an obstacle...they're right! I stand in the way of a politician who's been itching to become vice president but lost in 2010!)" he bellowed on Jan 16, 2012 before hundreds of SC employees clad in black.
While Corona did not mention any names, critics said he was referring to Aquino's ally in the Liberal Party and running mate in 2010 -- now Transportation and Communications Secretary Manuel 'Mar' Roxas.
Roxas lost to now Vice President Jejomar Binay. Roxas has a pending electoral protest against the former Makati mayor, which will be decided upon by the SC sitting as presidential electoral tribunal (PET). Corona chairs the PET and is one of those who will vote on this case.
Corona also took a swipe at a colleague in the High Court. "At huwag na tayong lumayo, malaki rin akong hadlang sa isang nag-aambisyong maging chief justice!" (We need not look far. I also stand in the way of someone who wants to be chief justice!")
There are two magistrates whom Corona does not see eye-to-eye with: Justices Antonio Carpio, who has voted against then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in politically-sensitive cases and Lourdes Sereno, the first appointee of President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III.
Corona has sought the inhibition of the two in cases he has filed at the SC. He asked the Court to void the impeachment trial and to bar the disclosure of his dollar accounts.
His venomous words have caused Malacañang to call his statements "slanderous."
"No Chief Justice has ever demeaned himself by the gutter language he used this morning,” the Palace said.
Corona has also used the metaphorical rostrum in his media blitz to defend himself. In March, he had 6 radio and television interviews, where he denied the allegations raised by his wife's relatives in relation to an ongoing dispute over Basa Guidote Enterprises Inc, a family corporation.
Corona has a consistent battlecry though: Aquino is after him because he has voted for the outright distribution to farmers of Hacienda Luisita, a 6,000-hectare sugar plantation owned by Aquino's family. The president -- who has divested his shares in HLI -- has denied this, however.
Corona v. Aquino
Corona added the impeachment trial is not just one of the manifestations of Aquino's hostility toward him.
He accused Malacañang of trying to impinge on the judiciary's fiscal autonomy. The Department of Budget and Management has tried to impound P2-B of the judiciary's budget for 2012 in the Miscellaneous Personnel Benefits Fund or MPBF.
Funds under the MPBF will only be released once vacancies are filled. The DBM said the rationale behind this is to prevent the conversion of funds, which had been a source of corruption in the military. The SC has denounced this move, however, saying it is an assault on their fiscal autonomy.
Then there was Aquino's refusal to take his oath before him as the newly-elected president in 2010. That singular act is symbolic of Aquino's opposition to his appointment as chief justice. Aquino instead took his oath before Morales, whom he later appointed Ombudsman in 2011.
The ghost of 2010
To the Aquino administration -- with or without the impeachment trial -- Corona's stay as chief justice has already been under question because of his very acceptance of the post.
Corona allegedly benefited from a midnight appointment. Two years ago, the SC overturned a decade-old ruling barring the president from making any appointments in the judiciary two months before the elections and until her term ends.
This ruling paved the way for Arroyo -- then suffering from plummeting approval ratings -- to appoint the replacement of then Chief Justice Reynato Puno who was due to resign on May 17.
Critics said this was the last nail on the coffin of judicial independence -- Arroyo has not only appointed 14 out of 15 justices (including Corona) in the SC, she also got to pick the chief justice.
But many said the SC decision that excluded the judiciary from the appointment ban should have already quelled the criticism against Corona's selection. But Arroyo's successor, Aquino, thought otherwise. He never recognized Corona's appointment and has expressed doubts over Corona's independence because he used to be Arroyo's chief of staff, presidential legal counsel, and spokesman.
To this, Corona said: "Give me a year before judging me."
Even before a year had passed, however, Corona's independence was put under scrutiny. Corona cast votes that court observers said favored his former superior and her allies. Corona voted with 9 other magistrates that declared Executive Order 1 -- which formed the Truth Commission -- unconstitutional in December 2010. The commission was tasked to probe Arroyo, who has been linked to alleged anomalous deals such as the botched $329-M NBN-ZTE deal.
Prior to that, in September 2010, the SC issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) enjoining the House committee on justice from proceeding with hearing the impeachment complaints against then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, an Arroyo appointee. In February 2011, however, the SC dismissed Gutierrez's petition; Corona dissented along with 4 other justices.
The straw that broke the camel's back for the Aquino administration, however, was when the SC issued a TRO in November 2011 enjoining the Department of Justice from enforcing its travel ban against Arroyo and her husband, lawyer Jose Miguel.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima barred the Arroyo couple from leaving the country because they were under preliminary investigation for their alleged involvement in the reported cheating in the 2007 senatorial polls.
Aquino said Arroyo would never be brought to justice if Corona continues to be at the helm of the SC. Corona and his allies cried foul, as he only has one vote in a 15-member High Tribunal.
Lack of transparency
By 2012, however, the criticisms against Corona went beyond his alleged ties with Arroyo.
The World Bank has asked the Supreme Court to return a total of US$199,000 (P8.6-M) in "ineligible" funds by the end of January 2012, saying the High Tribunal spent this on activities and projects not covered by a loan agreement between both parties. While the funds were extended for a reform program introduced in 2003, the expenses discovered to be "ineligible" were made under Corona's term already.
Corona's integrity was also questioned, following inconsistencies in his academic records. Rappler broke the stories on his alleged embellished school achievements in Ateneo and the lack of a dissertation for his doctoral studies at the University of Sto Tomas.
As the impeachment trial went on, allegations of undisclosed properties and bank accounts emerged.
Suffice to say, Corona spent two years of his term as chief justice battling criticisms and doubts over his leadership. These overshadowed, if not trivialized, some of the changes he tried to introduce. He moved to have the trial of the Maguindanao massacre -- where 58 people were killed, 32 of whom were journalists -- televised and shown live in the SC website.
He also voted in favor of the government, when the High Court upheld a Sandiganbayan ruling directing the re-conveyance of P1.56-B worth of shares owned by San Miguel Corp to the government. The shares were bought using coconut levy funds.
The above however do not obviate the ultimate demand for Corona to be more transparent, especially in his actions as chief justice. Rappler reported that Corona asked the Commission on Audit not to post on its website its audit reports on the judiciary.
The Chief Justice is not backing down, however. He said he will clear his name when he testifies in his own trial on Tuesday, May 22.
If he is acquitted, he will stay until 2018. If he is convicted, cases await him before the Office of the Ombudmsan.
But Corona fervently believes he will be able to continue his term. After attending another mass, on May 17, Corona only had this to say to critics who doubt his credibility: "See you next year!" - Rappler.com