The Ombudsman’s lantern

It is catchy and has rhythm.  It is the phrase that beleaguered Chief Justice Renato Corona used to describe the diagram of his alleged multiple bank transactions: a “lantern of lies.”  The curious reader will be forgiven for turning to Google to find the meaning and provenance of this fascinating idiom. Lanterns and lies seem to contradict one another. Lanterns are supposed to brighten, not darken, to give out light, not lies.

As it turns out, the phrase is neither Shakespearean nor classical. But it is no less figurative: the diagram showing Corona’s transactions does closely resemble those geometric lanterns from Pampanga that radiate crisscrossing light and project awesome patterns on a dark night. I would say it has immense possibilities as an enduring figure of speech. Lanterns have had a long association with augury.

In Roman times, augurs were asked to tell the future by studying the flight of birds. Lanterns were commonly used in these sessions. By their light, soothsayers read the omens before someone was installed in office to determine if the occasion was auspicious.  There’s no reason why someone should not read the signs before a high public official is removed from office.

I think this was precisely what Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales was doing when she offered that diagram purporting to represent Corona’s myriad transactions at various banks.  She tried to reconstruct Corona’s financial status from the bare reports furnished by the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), searching for signs in the flight of Corona’s money. And what she came up with provides the public with the most damning proof so far of the extent of Corona’s unreported wealth.

The documents AMLC furnished to Ombudsman Morales apparently consisted of bank transactions from 2003 onwards, involving P500,000 and above, that are linked to the name of Renato C. Corona. Such information is automatically reported by the banks to the AMLC in compliance with the requirements of the anti-money laundering law. It is this that the Office of the Ombudsman relied upon as basis for its case build-up, given that it could not ask the private banks to open any of the Corona accounts without a court order or the consent of Corona. Significantly, the AMLC itself says it has not inquired into the actual bank accounts of the Chief Justice.

The stumbling block to such inquiry is obviously the law that protects the secrecy of bank deposits, particularly foreign currency accounts. By issuing a TRO preventing the opening of the Chief Justice’s dollar accounts, the high court effectively sealed the door to any inquiry. Unless the impeachment court reverses an earlier decision to abide by the Supreme Court’s order, further investigation will have to turn to other sources of information. Working on the raw and partial data furnished by AMLC, the Ombudsman’s investigation was bound to be tedious. There was no information on starting and closing balances. Still, the findings are difficult to dismiss; they raise questions that are begging for answers.

The numbers are staggering. Here is a man with a full-time job as a magistrate of the highest court, who seems to have found the time to manage a portfolio of 82 personal accounts, actively transferring large amounts of money from one account to another, sometimes within the same day. This alone should have triggered a focused investigation by the AMLC. But that didn’t happen. Everyone thinks the powerful in our society enjoy a natural immunity from such investigations unless they are actually charged. Just listen to the alarm expressed by some of the senator-judges when they realized how encompassing the powers of the ombudsman are when it comes to investigating public officials.

The defense, as expected, tried to cast doubt on the existence of these accounts, arguing that they are based on unverified information.  Having made the mistake of summoning Ombudsman Morales as a witness, Corona’s lawyers now find themselves in the awkward position of having to call for the exclusion of her testimony. Whether they succeed or not, it is difficult to imagine how her testimony can be erased from the public mind. Sooner or later, they will have to present Corona himself so he could make good his claim that the Ombudsman’s diagram is nothing but a “lantern of lies.”

It would seem they are saving their client’s testimony for the trial’s final hour. But, indeed, until he actually takes the witness stand, no one can be certain if Corona will testify at all. In the meantime, his lawyers have summoned as hostile witnesses people who have filed a separate case against their client for unexplained wealth. In all likelihood, they will next call the AMLC executive director if only to get him to say that he has not actually verified with the banks the information he gave to the Ombudsman. They will proceed to question his authority to share such information. This buys them more time, but we are not sure what they will use it for.

All this is fanning speculation that the accused Chief Justice might be negotiating a face-saving resignation, or looking for a way to justify withdrawing from the trial before the impeachment court wraps up the case. Whatever the defense end game might be, Ombudsman Morales’ powerful lantern has greatly accelerated the process and moved the trial closer to the finish line. More important, it has provided the impeachment court the clarity it needs to answer the only question that really matters: Is this man fit to remain chief justice?