SC Justice releases assets statement

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Villarama defies majority of SC colleagues, who refused to allow him to release his SALN

Justice Villarama releases SALN

MANILA, Philippines – For the first time in decades, a Justice of the Supreme Court has voluntarily released his complete Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) to news organizations and civil society groups.

In a letter dated Jan. 19, 2012, Associate Justice Martin Villarama Jr. directed Supreme Court Clerk of Court Enriqueta Esguerra-Vidal to release his SALN as of December 31, 2011, to the following:

   * Mr. Harvey Keh, lead convenor, Kaya Natin Movement
   * Glenda M. Gloria, Executive Director, Newsbreak (now managing editor of Rappler; Newsbreak has merged with Rappler)
   * Philippe Manalang, Unlimited Productions, Inc.
   * Malou Mangahas, Executive Director, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Villarama said in his letter, which we received Thursday, January 26, that he authorized the release of the document “in view of recent developments and on a personal privilege.”

A source privy to the issue told Rappler that Villarama had asked the en banc for permission to release his own SALN but that majority of the High Court refused. (See Villarama’s instructions to the Clerk of Court below.)

In his 2011 SALN (copy below), Villarama listed 6 real estate properties in Pasig City, Quezon City, Tagaytay City, and in Angat, Bulacan, worth a total of P9.13 million.

He also declared personal and other properties (in the form of cash in banks, jewelries, a Toyota Innova and others) worth a total of P9.94-M and zero liabilities.

Impeachment specter

Villarama’s decision to release his assets disclosure document comes at a time when Chief Justice Renato Corona, the High Court’s primus inter pares, is facing an impeachment trial at the Senate.

Failure to disclose his SALN is one of the 8 charges listed in the impeachment complaint filed against Corona.

On Day 3 of the trial, the prosection presented Clerk of Court Esguerra-Vidal as one of its witnesses against Corona.

Vidal had initially asked the impeachment court to allow her to seek permission first from the SC before submiting copies of Corona’s SALNs to the Senate. She was eventually prevailed upon by Senator-judges, however, to submit copies of the documents.

The Senate later released copies of Corona’s SALNs to the media.

Shrouded in secrecy

The Supreme Court traditionally keeps a tight lid on the asset disclosures of its members. Newsbreak has attempted to obtain copies of said documents a number of times over the past decade.

When Newsbreak writer Aries Rufo wrote an article assessing the performance of then outgoing Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr., the Supreme Court rejected his request for photocopies of the SALNs of Davide and his son, Joseph Bryan Hilary Davide.

In its letter to Newsbreak then, the Supreme Court cited a May 1989 en banc resolution stating that requests for this kind of information tend to “endanger, diminish or destroy their [the judiciary’s] independence…and expose them to revenge for adverse decisions, kidnapping, extortion, blackmail.” It argues: “The independence of the judiciary is constitutionally as important as the right to information.”

In her testimony at the Impeachment Court, Esguerra-Vidal said at one point, the En Banc ordered that the SALNs should be stored in a vault.

Shift towards transparency?

On Dec. 21, 2011, we wrote Vidal and all 15 Justices, asking for copies of their SALNs. In her reply, Vidal told us then that she has submitted our request to the en banc.

Two of the Justices – Antonio Carpio and Maria Lourdes Sereno – allowed Vidal to release summaries of their SALN’s.

The summaries included total assets, liabilities and net worth and, in Carpio’s case, his business and financial interests. –

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