A crown of distrust

On the fifth day of his impeachment trial, Chief Justice Renato Corona’s lawyers objected to the presentation of evidence that meant to prove that he had accumulated ill-gotten wealth. They argued that this particular charge is not in any of the original articles of impeachment; hence the evidence offered is irrelevant.

Article 2 of the impeachment complaint is being narrowly interpreted as referring to the Chief Justice’s alleged failure to file and disclose his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN).  The defense says that, in fact, he did file his SALN, and that its non-disclosure to the public is in accordance with a long-standing policy of the Supreme Court. The question now before the Senate tribunal is whether to allow the presentation of evidence that purports to show that the information contained in the Chief Justice’s SALN is not truthful.  The defense warns that to do so would be to go beyond the scope of the articles of impeachment.

What should the senator-judges do?  The answer depends on what they think is relevant to their constitutionally mandated task as an impeachment tribunal. That task, as I understand it, is to determine the accused’s moral fitness to remain in the office he occupies.  Impeachment thus takes on the form both of an inquiry and a trial. The investigative part is assigned to the House, while the trial is assigned to the Senate.  That much is clear.  What is not clear—precisely because there is hardly any precedent to go by—is whether the Senate is strictly bound by the terms of the articles of impeachment filed by the House.  Or, whether it has the duty and prerogative to construe its role in such a way as to include inquiry into related issues not expressly stated in the charges.

My own view as a lay observer is that the tribunal’s duty is specific and comprehensive at the same time. It is specific in the sense that at the end of the trial, there is only one question to be decided: Should the accused remain in office or not?  But it is also comprehensive in the sense that the offenses for which an impeachable official may be charged do not have the exactness of criminal offenses.  For example, what constitutes “betrayal of public trust”?  This can be anything.  Senator-judges have the duty to arrive at its specific meaning on a case-by-case basis.

When a high government official like the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court files his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth, as required by law, is he not expected, like all government employees, to be truthful in his declaration? Does the mere act of filing satisfy the law? Is it irrelevant to inquire into the veracity of the statement?

It is absurd to think that the House prosecutors were charging Corona with simple failure to file his SALN.  No matter how poorly phrased the formal charges may be, it is obvious to anyone who cares to see that Corona is being charged not so much with failure to file or disclose his SALN, but with concealing the true extent and value of his assets.  He stands accused not of negligence, but of corruption. It is this that the prosecution seeks to prove.  And it is this that the Senate impeachment tribunal is being asked to receive evidence and testimony for.

To allow Corona’s lawyers to block such evidence on the ground that it is irrelevant to the charges is to privilege form over substance.  It defies all common sense.  Why go through the trouble of impeaching a chief justice for merely failing to file his SALN?

No, the truthfulness of Corona’s SALN is what is at issue here.  And there is no other way to determine the correspondence between what he actually owns and what he has declared, and between what he owns and what he legitimately earns, except by comparing his SALN with his tax declarations and government records of his properties.

Corona himself has said many times that he has nothing to hide.  His lawyers and spokesmen in fact made a virtue out of his belated offer to surrender his SALN to the Senate after the Supreme Court clerk of court initially refused to do so.  If indeed he has nothing to hide, should he not, on his own initiative, authorize the disclosure of all his income tax returns, properties and bank accounts?  Should he not tell his lawyers to stop objecting to the presentation of testimony and evidence pertaining to his personal wealth?  I believe that if he does these, and thereby proves himself clean, he will instantly earn the public’s enduring sympathy.  All the other charges against him will lose force.

But it is unlikely that he will do any of these.  All signs point to the fact that he has a lot to hide.  The senator-judges can make it easy for him to conceal his undeclared properties, or they can make it hard for him by allowing him to be confronted with damning evidence and testimony. They can, in a manner of speaking, vote to keep the “second envelope” sealed, or they can authorize the revelation of its content.  Which will it be?

This is a moment of truth for the Senate.  The public is eager to know what is in those income tax returns and land and condominium titles.  It wants to hear the testimony of people who sold Corona these properties or hold records of his real estate transactions. His lawyers may persist in their objections, invoking his right to privacy and due process.  But what good does it do their client? At the most, Corona may get to keep his wealth under wraps—for now.  But, in the eyes of the public, he will continue to be burdened by the crown of distrust he has worn since the day he accepted his midnight appointment as Chief Justice from an outgoing and discredited president.