Corona’s word

In many ways, tomorrow’s (Monday) caucus of the senator-judges is probably as crucial to the impeachment case as the much-awaited testimony of the accused Chief Justice Renato Corona.  We may recall that some of the senators, after hearing the explosive testimony of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, expressed a need to verify her findings by summoning the head of the Anti-Money Laundering Council or the bank managers themselves.

That need may not have the same urgency now because of Corona’s decision to finally take the witness stand. But summoning the bank managers and asking them to disclose the accounts of the accused remain a live issue. And it is a potent one, given the complications it could trigger—including a possible head-on collision between the Senate impeachment court and the Supreme Court. The high court had earlier issued a temporary restraining order on the disclosure of Corona’s foreign currency accounts. The Senate opted not to challenge the TRO, but my sense is that it is not averse to going against it if the need arises.

A lot depends on what information Corona himself is prepared to provide in his testimony. He will be asked to confirm the existence of dollar accounts under his name. His lawyers will object, citing the absolute confidentiality of such accounts. He will then be challenged, as a public official on trial, to authorize the banks to disclose all his accounts. He will decline—as humbly as possible—citing his constitutional rights.

There is a big downside to this strategy. Corona’s lawyers may be able to score legal points by invoking their client’s constitutional rights, but only at the cost of making him appear evasive. If he stonewalls in his answers, the public will take it against him. Concealment is the worst thing one can do in a very public impeachment trial. The defense knows that it has the urgent task of disputing the Ombudsman’s findings. It is hard to imagine how this can be done by merely denying that the Chief Justice had anything to do with the transactions documented by the AMLC.

Corona’s lawyers have been telling the media that Ombudsman Morales’ testimony is of dubious probative value. They are saying that a scientific interpretation of the raw data from the AMLC would yield a very different picture.  Up to this point, this rebuttal is being performed outside the courtroom. When the trial resumes on Tuesday, will they present their reading of the AMLC data using Corona’s testimony as platform? But how would they do this without their client admitting that some of these transactions are his?

My expectation is that, if and when he gets to the point of testifying at all, Corona will admit to owning a few, not 82, dollar accounts.  He will try to show that these funds all came from legitimate sources. He will argue that these assets are not his personally but belong to his whole family. He will then say he felt no obligation to declare them in his annual statements of assets, liabilities and net worth because these are covered by the absolute confidentiality of foreign currency deposits. He might even challenge his detractors in Congress to show if any of them have declared dollar deposits in their SALNs.

The prosecution and the senator-judges will, however, not let the issues raised by Ombudsman Morales’ testimony be dismissed so easily. In view of competing interpretations of the same set of raw data, they will argue that the best way to determine which one is valid would be by opening the bank accounts themselves. The Senate clearly wishes it did not have to come to this point. But if the accused refuses to authorize the disclosure of his bank assets, there may be no choice but for the impeachment court to subpoena them.

What this case comes down to, in the last analysis, is the credibility of the Chief Justice’s explanation of the assets found under his name—where they came from and why he did not report them in his SALNs. If the sums involved turn out to be not as staggering as the Ombudsman’s report shows them to be, he will definitely earn public sympathy. If, beyond this, he volunteers to authorize the banks to disclose all his deposits even before he is asked to do so, he will gain the public goodwill that has so far eluded him. The public might then be inclined to treat the nondisclosure of these deposits in his SALNs as nothing more than a lapse in judgment, rather than as a grievous impeachable offense.

As I have repeatedly pointed out in previous columns, because impeachment is as political as it is judicial, it is impossible for the senator-judges to ignore public opinion. Where there is plausible deniability of wrongdoing, the senators who are presently vacillating will go for an acquittal. But if the accused’s much-anticipated testimony amounts to nothing more than a clever exercise in using the law to suppress evidence, not even the most sympathetic senator-judge will find it easy to justify a vote of acquittal.

The Chief Justice is not like an ordinary citizen who is vulnerable to all kinds of criminal suits. A difficult process, impeachment is the only way to make him accountable. But the moment the occupant of this high office reaches the point of being impeached, the burden of showing his fitness to remain in this exalted position rests heavily on him. Unless he faces the charges squarely and explains himself adequately, he will forever remain tainted even if there may not be enough votes to actually take him out. As Chief Justice, his word would mean nothing.

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