A victory for transparency
MANILA, Philippines - The opening week of the impeachment trial will be remembered for a historic moment when Enriqueta Vidal, with a clear face and a slight quiver in her voice, turned over to the Senate the elusive assets and liabilities statements of Chief Justice Renato Corona.
A Supreme Court employee, Vidal ended more than 2 decades of secrecy in the Court, the only branch of government that has exempted itself from making the justices’ statements of assets, liabilities and net worth or SALN public. It had to take the impeachment court, a co-equal, to yank out the hidden documents showing Corona’s net worth for 9 years.
Vidal, the en banc’s Clerk of Court, has been with the Supreme Court for 36 years. She is known to be honest but she has also been shaped by the hierarchical and secretive culture in Padre Faura. Thus, when she was thrust into the center of a battle between two co-equal branches of government, she was torn between following the rules of her employer, which are deeply embedded in her psyche, and the impeachment court which was trying her boss.
It may not have been known to the senator-judges that a day before Vidal made history, the Supreme Court met and took up, among others, the issue of whether to disclose their SALNs or not. They were forced by events to finally resolve it. (As early as 2009, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism had filed a petition urging the justices to disclose their SALNs.) But instead of deciding on it, they asked the appellate and lower-court judges to comment. Clearly, this was meant to delay their decision.
So when Sen. Joker Arroyo asked his colleagues to wait for “just one day” to get the Supreme Court’s okay for Vidal to release Corona’s assets statements, he seemed to be in a different time zone. Vidal herself said that the Court would still deliberate on the Senate’s subpoena to her during its next en banc meeting on Tuesday (January 24).
In the end, transparency won.
Excitement rippled through the Senate session hall, where the impeachment trial takes place, as Vidal handed over a folder that contained Corona’s well-kept secrets. It was a feast for the prosecution team’s eyes—and the media as well.
What was surprising, though, was the revelation of members of the defense team that they had not seen the chief justice’s SALNs. A candid Tranquil Salvador III, one of the defense counsels, admitted in a press conference that they had asked Corona if his properties were in the SALNs and their client assured them that these were all listed. “These will all come out at the proper time,” Salvador quoted Corona as telling them.
The bravado and deftness of lead defense counsel Serafin Cuevas—who proudly announced on the first day of the trial that they “made him (Corona) appear” before the impeachment court—hid the fact that they were blind on the chief justice’s SALNs.
While day 4 of the trial did not bring a high and seemed to be tedious, as 3 registers of deeds (Taguig, Quezon City, and Marikina) took the witness stand, the quest for transparency continued. The three officials dryly read details from land and condominium titles as well as deeds of sale. Indeed, the chief justice and his wife own high-end condominiums and residential lots. Their two daughters have also acquired substantial properties.
Land and condominium titles as well as deeds of sale are all public records. However, it takes a lot of legwork and a budget for fees, to gain access to all these. Seeing all these documents fall into the lap of the prosecution team—summoned by the power of the impeachment court’s subpoena—would make any journalist envious.
Next week, more information will be unearthed as Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares is expected to make the income tax returns of the Coronas public. That would be another triumph for transparency, a value we hold dear. - Rappler.com