The Gamechanger: Implications of the Ombudsman’s testimony

Dean Tony La Viña
It’s not yet “game over” but certainly the game has changed. The bar the Chief Justice must hurdle to be acquitted is much higher now than before Carpio-Morales testified.

Dean Tony La ViñaIf it was a bluff, it certainly backfired. Earlier Chief Justice Corona expressed his willingness to testify and explain everything on the condition that those who have accused him of having a $10-million bank account are to be subpoenaed by the impeachment court.  

The challenge was made by the defense panel with the blessing of the Chief Justice, presumably on the belief that the complainants and even the Ombudsman would not be able to substantiate their claims and that the baseless accusations would fall flat on their faces under the searing cross-examination by the defense.

After all, the new accusations leveled against him by the complainants involve dollar accounts whose presentation was successfully blocked previously by the defense who went all the way to the Supreme Court to get a restraining order.

And so the defense confidently asked that the Ombudsman, former Supreme Court Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, to be subpoenaed if only to prove to the public how innocuous her testimony would be.

Apparently the chief legal counsel Justice Serafin Cuevas who presented the witness did not anticipate that the Ombudsman’s testimony would be  explosive, devastating in fact. In a nutshell, the Ombudsman’s testimony touched on 82 dollar accounts, involving staggering amounts, in a number of different banks. 

The lead counsel seemed to have been taken aback, maybe because he never expected that kind of testimony from the witness, or he was unprepared to handle the deluge of incriminating information coming from the witness. He tried to arrest further damage to their case by questioning the powers of the Office of the Ombudsman, insisting that the Ombudsman did not comply with the legal procedure mandated. He also declared that compelling the Chief Justice to answer the Ombudsman violated his right against self-incrimination.

Justice Cuevas, whom I admire and like very much, was groping, seemed lost, and was determined, albeit in vain, to impeach the damaging testimony of the witness that the defense themselves called. But even a brilliant legal mind can only do so much, especially before a witness like Carpio-Morales whom Senator Juan Ponce-Enrile described more than a dozen times as “a very intelligent witness.”

Constitutional mandate

Clearly, no amount of legal verbiage and somersaulting can effectively assail or question the authority of the Ombudsman to investigate and prosecute on its own – or on complaint by any person – any act or omission of any public officer or employee, office or agency, when such act or omission appears to be illegal, unjust, improper or inefficient.

No less than the Constitution gives her this mandate. Neither can her power be questioned to direct – upon complaint or at its own instance – any officer or employee of the government, or of any subdivision, agency or instrumentality thereof, to perform and expedite any act or duty required by law, or to stop, prevent, and correct any abuse or impropriety in the performance of duties. 

Neither can the defense effectively question the power of the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) to require and receive covered or suspicious transaction reports from covered institutions. And this involves even the dollar deposits of the Chief Justice.

Moreover, a waiver in the SALN allows the Ombudsman the blanket authority to look into the bank accounts of any public official, even the highest officials of government like the chief magistrate. Any attempt therefore to question the authority of the AMLC and the Ombudsman, let alone the Commission on Audit which, for a while, figured in the impeachment proceedings when COA Commissioner Heidi Mendoza presented a power point presentation, will be an exercise in futility.

Corona as dummy?

Previously, the defense would always present explanations, excuses if you must, for any assets allegedly owned by the Chief Justice which were not included in his SALN. These included the peso accounts which, according to them, came from the proceeds of the sale of certain properties; condominium units which, again according to them, while already in the name of the spouses Corona, had yet to be effectively delivered to them; hence ownership had yet to be transferred. 

But how could anyone, let alone the Chief Justice, credibly explain away millions of dollars in his name. These enormous amounts of monies are clearly way beyond his business and financial capacity to acquire. To label the AMLC report as a “hoax… and that the Ombudsman had a diagram which was a lantern of lies” will not stick. 

At this point, a more credible explanation from the Chief Justice himself other than a blanket denial and resort to argumentum ad vinculum and ad hominem will be most necessary, if the case for the defense is to have any chance of convincing the impeachment tribunal and the public that the Chief Justice did nothing wrong.  

Perhaps, by now many are entertaining the suspicion that the millions of dollars are owned by somebody else other than the Chief Justice; that he was a mere dummy, a bagman, a depository of sorts. The latest statement by the Ombudsman that significant transactions coincided with certain significant events such as the elections, or the filing of the impeachment case all the more give credence to these insinuations and will give more fodder to these suspicions. 

Strategy of the defense

Is it “game over” then for the Chief Justice? Not yet actually. In fact, on the second day of the Ombudsman’s testimony, the defense was able to recover a bit and Justice Cuevas (whom I admire even more for being able to bounce back very quickly from what must have been one of the worst trial days he has had in decades of litigation) hinted at what their strategy will be in the days to come.

My guess is that the defense will bring key AMLC personnel into the impeachment court to undermine the testimony of the Ombudsman and especially her analysis (assisted by Commissioner Mendoza) of the inflows and outflows of money.

It’s not yet “game over” but certainly the game has changed. The bar the Chief Justice must hurdle to be acquitted is much higher now than before Carpio-Morales testified. The Chief Justice must not only discredit the AMLC report and dispute the analysis of Ombudsman Morales and Commissioner Mendoza; he must also explain why not any one of these accounts and purported amounts of money were not reported in any of his SALNs.

We know that the Chief Justice previously made a commitment to take the witness stand. Will the turn of events finally dissuade him to do so or will he see the urgency to testify all the more and explain his side? If a credible answer exists and is forthcoming then he must surely testify; otherwise, if the answer to this incriminating testimony is merely a blanket denial, then perhaps it is time to take stack of himself and reconsider his options.

As for the country, this is a decisive moment. What Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales has done is truly astounding. Using her powers in the constitution and existing law, she has opened a pathway to transparency and accountability we have never seen before.

The reported accounts are just the tip of the iceberg. If verified to exist and found to be in fact truly owned by the Chief Justice, the Ombudsman must take the next steps and ask who made those deposits and if, in fact, these were done to obtain favorable decisions.

If the Chief Justice is convicted and removed from office, criminal charges should be filed and all those who are implicated should also be charged. The stakes are much higher now than they were when this impeachment saga began.

At some point in this trial I thought that however it ended, because the Corona impeachment had become too personal, it would have no impact on the judiciary and the government. Carpio-Morales changed all that with her courage and determination. Let’s rise up to this and truly change our country. –


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