How Sereno answered her impeachment complaint

Lian Buan

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How Sereno answered her impeachment complaint
None of Larry Gadon’s documents, though authentic, support his allegations, according to Sereno’s chief lawyer Alex Poblador

MANILA, Philippines – Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno faces a tough battle ahead, at least in the House of Representatives. Rumors in political circles indicate her impeachment complaint will go far in the lower chamber, but her band of high-caliber lawyers remains confident about her case.

On Monday, September 25, they filed and presented before media their 85-page verified answer to the allegations. “This is just fake news,” said one of Sereno’s spokespersons, lawyer Jojo Lacanilao.

“They belong to the garbage,” lawyer Alex Poblador added, referring to the newspaper reports heavily cited by Gadon in his complaint. News reports, Poblador said, are hearsay and inadmissible evidence in a court proceeding. 

Poblador added that Gadon’s documents, provided to him by the SC itself, may be authentic but they do not support his allegations.

Here is how the Chief Justice answered the impeachment complaint:

1. Psychological reports

GADON: “An applicant to any position in the judiciary with a grade of 4 is unfit for the job.” Citing a report from Manila Times, Gadon said Sereno got a 4 out of 5 grade in her psychological examination when she applied for the SC. 

SERENO: “There is no such provision whatsoever in JBC-009, or the Rules of the JBC in effect when the Chief Justice applied for a position in the Judiciary.” 

The Chief Justice added that psychological examination results are used solely for evaluation purposes. Whether or not she got a score of 4, Sereno said that “even if true a 4 in the alleged evaluation is not an offense, let alone an impeachable one.” (READ: ‘Do not be afraid to be minority’: Chief Justice Sereno, 5 years on)

2. RCAO revival

GADON: Sereno committed culpable violation of the Constitution when she falsified a resolution in 2012 reviving the Regional Court Administration Office in Region 7 or RCAO 7.

Gadon cited a December 3, 2012 memorandum by Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro saying that Sereno’s resolution was not ratified by the en banc. This is proven, Gadon said, by the SC eventually issuing a corrective resolution in January 2013.

SERENO: The SC had authorized the piloting of RCAO 7 as early as 2006. Then in 2008, the SC issued a resolution which designates the chief justice to, “acting on his or her own,” designate the Regional Court Administrator to pilot RCAO 7.

For 6 years, the RCAO 7 was never piloted until 2012, when as newly-appointed Chief Justice, she appointed Geraldine Faith Econg (now Sandiganbayan justice) as head of the judiciary decentralized region (JDO) in the 7th Judicial Region, which, in effect, revived the RCAO 7.

The subsequent resolution, Sereno said, was not a corrective resolution or a recall of the first one. “The resolution was meant to address the concerns raised by some members of the court regarding the problems encountered during the pilot testing of RCAO 7.” (READ: Inside SC: Justice De Castro vs CJ Sereno?)

“It is obvious that the acts of the Chief Justice regarding the revival of the RCAO 7, even if disagreed to by Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro, do not constitute impeachable offenses.”

3. Blanket TRO on 2013 party-list proclamations

GADON: Sereno “tampered with and altered the contents of the draft temporary restraining order (TRO) sent by Justice de Castro.” Gadon is referring to the SC’s TRO on party-list proclamations during the 2013 elections as a response to the petition of disqualified Coalition of Association of Senior Citizens party-list.

De Castro wanted a TRO on the disqualification of Senior Citizens party-list only. “It was only after Sereno endured a harsh tongue-lashing from De Castro, the original ponente of the tampered TRO was the TRO rectified and re-released,” Gadon said. (READ: CJ Sereno asks lawmakers to choose democracy over partisan interest)

SERENO: Because the petition was filed during recess, SC internal rules authorized the Chief Justice to act on urgent cases such as those pleading for a TRO. Therefore, she said, she was within her power to issue a TRO.

“She simply did not fully adopt the recommended draft order submitted to her for approval. The Chief Justice cannot possibly falsify, tamper with or alter a TRO issued under her own authority.”

But a week later, the SC issued a status quo ante order which, in effect, applied De Castro’s recommendations. Sereno insisted this was not a revocation of her earlier TRO, but just the en banc acting on its power to review the Chief Justice’s TRO decisions while on recess.

4. Falsification of order to Medialdea?

GADON: It was another culpable violation of the Constitution when Sereno allegedly falsified an SC resolution which directed Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to submit complaint affidavits against 4 trial court judges allegedly involved in the drug trade.

The SC would eventually issue a resolution which did not issue a directive to Medialdea but instead invited pertinent officials to submit the complaint affidavits.

SERENO: All a matter of miscommunication. According to her verified answer, the “directive” was contained in a draft resolution. On August 8, 2016, even though the full version of the resolution was still up for revision, the dispositive portion was already final. The SC’s Public Information Office (PIO) released the dispositive portion of the resolution on the same day.

“This is what happened here, with the PIO reporting that the Court had directed the Executive Secretary to submit complaints.” The directive part, however, was removed from the final version of the resolution, which was what was signed by the justices.

“The revision does not prove that the first version of the resolution was fake. The complainant’s allegations that the Chief Justice authorized the release of a ‘fake resolution’ were a product of his own malicious understanding of matters over which he has no personal knowledge of.”

5. Piatco fees

GADON: Sereno did not truthfully disclose her earnings from defending – and then winning – a government arbitration case against Philippine International Air Terminals Co. Inc. (Piatco) in her Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN). This amounted to P37 million.

The issue over Piatco earnings is one of Gadon’s more interesting allegations, according to court observers, if only because of the precedent set by the impeachment of the late former chief justice Renato Corona.

SERENO: Then a private lawyer, she earned P30 million, not P37 million, from the Piatco case. She received the fees in a span of 5 years from 2004 to 2009 or during the whole process.

She was appointed to the SC as an Associate Justice in 2010 and as a public official, was required to declare her assets in her SALN. What she declared that year was what remained of her Piatco earnings, as well as properties she had acquired through the years with that money.

Of the P30 million, P8.67 million was paid as taxes, P14.7 million was spent on medical expenses and procurement of a house and lot in Filinvest and a Toyota Altis, and the remaining P6.9 million went to her family’s living expenses from 2004 to 2009. All the properties and investments are declared in her SALN.

Sereno’s 2016 SALN shows her net worth at P24.2 million, more than P2.76 million compared to her net worth in 2015.

6. The Jardeleza appointment

GADON: Sereno manipulated the short list of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) to exclude Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza for “personal and political reasons, and curtailing the President’s power to appoint him.”

Gadon said Sereno manipulated the JBC into excluding Jardeleza from the short list even though he already had sufficient votes. Sereno imposed the unanimity rule, ordinarily not required for short-listed nominees. Jardeleza contested his exclusion before the SC. He won that petition and was eventually appointed. (READ: The inside story: Jardeleza accused of disloyalty to PH)

Retired justice Arturo Brion wrote a scathing concurring opinion which reads in part: “The manipulation was a purposive campaign to discredit and deal Jardeleza a mortal blow at the JBC level to remove him as a contender at the presidential level of the appointing process.

SERENO:  “The Chief Justice did not manipulate anything. Complainant is simply echoing language from the separate concurring opinion of former Associate Justice Arturo Brion in Jardeleza vs Sereno. In other words, complainant is relying on opinion, instead of facts, the law and doctrine.”

Sereno, as ex-officio chairman of the JBC, contested Jardeleza’s nomination because of integrity issues. Sereno questioned Jardeleza’s deletion of a portion in the memorandum submitted to the United Nations during the arbitration case over the West Philippine Sea. Jardeleza was solicitor general at the time.

Citing Section 2, Rule 10 of the JBC rules, Sereno said a unanimous vote is required of a nominee if his or her integrity is challenged. “Her expression of such opinion within the confines of the existing JBC rules cannot amount to a violation of the Constitution, much less one which is culpable in nature and for which she deserves to be impeached,” said her verified answer.

7. Clustering in the JBC

GADON: Sereno manipulated the short list of the JBC for 6 vacancies at the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan to accommodate her favored nominees.

In 2015, 6 vacancies opened up at the same time and the JBC decided, by a majority vote (Senator Koko Pimentel was the lone dissenting vote) to cluster the nominees. Clustering was an issue for some because it could be used to put the favored nominee in a group of perceived weak nominees to increase the chances of getting the appointment.

Zaldy Trespeses, Sereno’s chief protocol officer at the time, would eventually get one of these 6 appointments.

SERENO: “The JBC has been clustering nominees since 2013 without anyone objecting to its validity.” Sereno insisted she did not manipulate the JBC because the members voted on their own.

She pointed out that clustering had always been done in good faith whenever there were multiple vacancies. Sereno cited Section 9, Article VIII of the Constitution which says: “The members of the Supreme Court and lower courts shall be appointed by the President from a list of at least 3 nominees prepared by the JBC for every vacancy.”

Sereno also pointed out that former president Benigno Aquino III still ended up choosing his appointments not from the clusters, but from his own preferences. For example, not one on the cluster for the 16th Sandiganbayan justice was appointed. Furthermore, two appointed justices – Michael Frederick Musngi and Geraldine Faith Econg – belonged to one cluster.

In February 2017, the SC – acting on the petition of the short-listed judges who were bypassed in that set of appointments – declared clustering unconstitutional.

Poblador said that the February 2017 ruling was not retroactive and cannot be used against Sereno because the questioned clustering happened in 2015 or two years before.

8. Excessive use of funds

GADON: Sereno had excessively used court funds in her purchase of a P5-million Toyota Land Cruiser, the booking of a presidential villa in Boracay for P200,000 a night, her business class travels, and her inclusion of a “huge entourage of lawyers” in official trips.

SERENO: Every expense is within bounds.

On the land cruiser, Sereno cited a budget circular that expressly allows the Chief Justice to buy a luxury vehicle for security purposes.

On the presidential villa, Sereno said the SC approved the budget to book the villa for the all-day use of the ASEAN chief justices who had come to Boracay for the 3rd meeting of ASEAN chief justices.

Sereno, her staff, and part of the event secretariat then used the villa overnight at no additional cost. Booking separate rooms for the purpose of sleeping in them would have cost the SC more, said Sereno.

Sereno said that the SC Human Resource Manual “expressly allowed the Chief Justice to travel on full business class.” The reason why other justices don’t is because the same manual prohibits them from doing so.

Sereno said the lawyers who join her on office trips were necessary for her to do her job. “There is no rule (and the Complainant has cited none) which prohibits the Chief Justice from bringing her staff on foreign trips.”

Sereno said that in 16 of her foreign trips, she traveled alone on 4 occasions, brought one lawyer on 9 trips, two lawyers on two trips, and 3 lawyers on one trip.

Gadon’s complaint has been declared sufficient in form and substance by the House committee on justice voting 30-4. The next step is to put it through another round of votes to decide if there is probable cause.

Hearings would then be conducted after which a third of the House of 97 members should vote to transmit the complaint to the Senate which will sit as an impeachment court.

Sereno’s lawyers are moving to be allowed to cross-examine Gadon and witnesses during the House hearings. –

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.