Ombudsman makes history

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
When she testifies, I expect Morales to be her usual self: straightforward, unflappable, and undaunted

Marites D. VitugWhen someone suggested to then Supreme Court Justice Conchita Carpio Morales that she decline incoming President Noynoy Aquino’s invitation to administer his oath because it was not her place to do so—it was the chief justice’s—she was aghast. “It would have been hypocrisy on my part to do that!” she said in a TV interview, her eyes widening.

Then, in a reflective tone, she added. “I wouldn’t have wanted to miss history.”

This time, Morales, now the Ombudsman, is thrust into another historic event, the impeachment trial of her former colleague and boss. She will be testifying on Chief Justice Renato Corona’s multi-million dollar accounts supposedly spread out in several banks. This is the product of her office’s weeks-long investigation, triggered by complaints from leaders of civil-society groups. 

As the country’s top graftbuster, it is Morales’s duty to act on corruption complaints. The law allows the Ombudsman to ferret out information on public officials from various government agencies including the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC). In Corona’s case, she relied on data from the AMLC to arrive at the staggering figure of US$10 million in bank balances of the chief justice.

(The international regime on money laundering requires banks to report certain levels of bank deposits of “politically exposed persons,” among others, as part of the alert and monitoring system. The AMLC keeps tab of these.)    

Morales was expected to submit her findings to Speaker Feliciano Belmonte early May, as the process required, for Congress to initiate impeachment proceedings. But since the impeachment trial of Corona was well under way, Belmonte was to present to the Senate president a copy, as part of the evidence. The next step was for the Senate to subpoena the Ombudsman.

But things moved fast and, in a confounding and dramatic move, the defense jumped the gun and asked the impeachment court to subpoena Morales. Her testimony will be crucial; it can seal the precarious fate of the Chief Justice.


When Aquino wrote her to administer his oath in 2010, he said he “admired her audacity on an issue with serious repercussions in the future.” He was referring to her lonely but vigorous dissent against the appointment of a midnight chief justice.

After Morales said yes, Aquino wrote back saying that the inauguration would be sending a “resonating message that conviction and principle still hold sway, and that true change in governance is coming.”

After the trial, will these words resonate once more?

Next week, we will be seeing two personalities who were almost always on opposite sides while in the Court. I expect Morales to be her usual self: straightforward, unflappable, and undaunted. As she told Ces Drilon in Pipol, when asked if parties tried to sway her while she was in the Court, “I’m impervious to influence.”

But it is difficult to imagine Corona on the witness stand answering questions on his undeclared bank deposits or any of his belatedly declared assets. I say this because his behavior in the Court is the antithesis of being transparent. Testifying in an open court, being at the receiving end of searing questions and with the full glare of the media, goes against his grain.  

Take a few instances. He did not voluntarily disclose his assets and liabilities statement, as 3 of his colleagues did (Justices Martin Villarama, Antonio Carpio, and Maria Lourdes Sereno), when asked by Rappler and a non-government organization. As it turned out, the impeachment court had to subpoena his SALNs.

The first time information on his dollar accounts in PSBank surfaced, he assured the public that he would disclose these “in due time.” But contrary to his pronouncement, he sought refuge in the Court which readily ordered PSBank to keep his dollar accounts secret.

Against disclosure    

On key cases that had to do with disclosure of information and the public’s right to know, he voted in the negative.

At the height of the scandal on the overpriced US$329-million national broadband network deal with Chinese firm ZTE, then Economic Planning Secretary Romulo Neri refused to answer critical questions in the Senate. Instead, he hailed the Senate to the Court, claiming that questions on the contract were covered by executive privilege. Neri v Senate became a contentious case because of its implications on checks and balances. The Supreme became Court voted in favor of Neri, 9-6. Corona sided with the majority.

In 2010, Corona voted against the disclosure of detailed information by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) on its technical preparations for the country’s first automated polls.

He voted to prohibit the media from airing the “Hello, Garci” taped conversations supposedly between President Arroyo and a Comelec official, Virgilio Garcillano which transpired during the 2004 elections.

It is a source of amazement that Corona has reached this far in the trial, when almost everything that he has kept away from the public has been exposed, from his deep involvement in the Basa-Guidote dispute that led to his wife’s take-over of the family corporation to his fantastic wealth.

He has finally experienced the one thing that being in the Court has saved him from — public scrutiny. –

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.