By Dean Tony La Viña
“Duty is the most sublime word in our language.” This is a quote misattributed to American Civil War General Robert E. Lee. Error of quotation aside, those who have to do their duty will appreciate its gravity. All the more so when we speak of “civic duty,” that which we (civilian or official) owe to the Filipino people, as opposed to “public duty,” which we can define here as that expected of the public servant by the law. Civic duty at its core is about love of country, what a citizen is willing to do, what a citizen is willing to sacrifice for the good of our motherland.
This impeachment trial has been a test, not just of the public duty of the personalities involved, but also of their civic duty. Beyond guilt or innocence, or villain-and-hero characterizations, every character in this political drama has their praiseworthy moment, when they hear the call of their civic duty—yes, even those whom we accuse of failing their public duty.
As such, praise should go to the Chief Justice himself. His decision to finally testify in his defense hits precisely at the heart of this impeachment trial, providing the prime opportunity for accountability. The truth is what the public official owes the people: of his actions while in office, of the strength and integrity of his character, of his trustworthiness with the powers and resources of the state entrusted to him—and, in this case, the discrepancies in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN). Of course, as I have written many times, it would have been much better for the country and for himself if the Chief Justice early on had decided to testify as well as waive confidentiality with respect to his assets and bank accounts.
This is something that cannot be provided by a legal defense, technicalities, or press releases, but by honest answers to fair questions. Inasmuch as the impeachment trial has raised fair questions, the Chief Justice serves his country best by providing verifiable answers. Some may choose to be cynical and dismiss his expected testimony as self-serving. Far better, however, to welcome this event, even as we remain wary. The impeachment provides the opportunity for Corona to perform this duty—so why make it hard for him by reacting to it with sneers and disbelief?
We are all in agreement, though, that Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales has done her duty sublimely. Her initiative in investigating allegations of suspicious accounts linked to Corona, requesting help from the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), has not just changed the impeachment trial’s dynamics, let alone raise new questions for Corona. From the perspective of duty, she made her mark here in a way that past Ombudsmen have not, raising new possibilities—and, admittedly, new dangers.
Investigation is the handmaiden of accountability, verifying allegation and deterring malfeasance. Up until now that deterrence and verifiability have admittedly been weak, especially against the proverbial “big fish”. Ombudsman Morales’ initiative, working together with Heidi Mendoza and the rest of the Commission on Audit, opens a new door to accountability, similar to how the mobster Al Capone was finally brought down using tax evasion charges. Granted, it does raise questions about the extent of the Ombudsman’s powers, but such questions wouldn’t have arisen in the first place had Morales not acted as she did.
Certainly the Ombudsman was a match (if not more than) for Corona’s lead defense counsel, former Justice Serafin Cuevas—but this should also stand in praise of Cuevas. As that Olympics ad once said, “You are my adversary, but you are not my enemy.” This is the defense attorney’s civic duty, challenging the prosecution to prove their case by the highest standards of accountability. Just as the prosecution attempts to hold Corona accountable for the allegations in the Articles of Impeachment, so does the Corona defense team attempt to hold the prosecution accountable for the bases of those allegations.
Justice Cuevas’ and the defense’s gallant performance, notwithstanding the serious error they committed in presenting the Ombudsman as their witness, is and should stand as a testament to the right of all Filipino citizens to the best legal defense, one of the most basic human rights we enjoy. If the Chief Justice were found guilty and removed from office, it would not for lack of good and competent counsel.
On that note, we should also express our gratitude towards the prosecution team (both the Congressmen and the private prosecutors) who have fought tooth and nail for their case to be made. True, they have stumbled in their performance, being on the receiving end of criticism of unpreparedness from the senator-judges. Yet they have managed to present a prima facie case, providing a firm basis for delivering a verdict on Corona’s culpability. Certainly true after they had narrowed down their efforts to the three Articles of Impeachment with the best legal foundation and evidences, Article II (failure to disclose SALN) most especially.
Of the notable parties so far, Harvey Keh fits best the definition of civic duty, precisely because he is an ordinary citizen. By “duty” I mean the following actions: to file, along with former Rep. Risa Hontiveros, Rep. Walden Bello and Emmanuel Tiu Santos, before the Ombudsman the letter-complaints that would later lead to Morales’s initiative, and to respond to the summons of the Senate to explain himself. He, like any Filipino citizen, is entitled to air his grievances or the grievances of others before the proper forums—and to answer the fair questions posed before him in such forums. The insults he has faced from some, in response to his testimony, are unwarranted.
Full disclosure is necessary: Harvey and I are co-workers at the Ateneo School of Government, where he sits as the Director for the Youth Leadership Social Entrepreneurship (YLSE) program. I have served as his mentor and advisor on many things, including on the creation and convening of Kaya Natin which is one of the best things that has ever happened to Philippine governance.
Still, also in full disclosure, I wasn’t consulted on his decision to send the documents he received to the Senate, or in alerting the media. Had we spoken before the fact, I would have advised greater caution. It would have been very clear to me that the documents were probably fabricated and more helpful to the defense than to the prosecution. I probably would have warned him about getting media involved, anticipating Senator Enrile’s statement that he was insulted by what Harvey did. I sincerely hope that this young, idealistic person has learned the right lessons from this experience without diminishing his passion for reforming the country. The experience of being humiliated is actually a good thing if one learns true humility from what one undergoes.
That said, there is no doubt in my mind that Harvey had acted out of a sincere appreciation of his civic duty. His behavior under examination by the Senate reinforces this belief. On that note, I was disappointed by how some in the Senate had questioned him. The questions of Senators Defensor Santiago and Estrada during the trial have been arguably fair. Both senators have actually impressed me – Santiago for daring to speak her mind regardless of public opinion; Estrada for always being prepared and asking serious questions. What I lament is their manner of questioning Harvey. It sends a wrong signal to future whistleblowers and other private citizens summoned by the Senate.
Name-calling, counter-accusations, and borderline ad hominem attacks not only undermine the respectability of the impeachment proceedings and its personalities, they also threaten to undermine the credibility of the results of these proceedings, and the sobriety with which the public will receive them. Yet, Miss Manners aside, I still praise the Senate for doing its civic duty as the arbiter of truth in these trying times. Too pointed the questions may be, in search of the truth the senator-judges clarify the allegations, defenses, and evidences presented before them, much as a jeweler brings out the best of each gemstone with the grinding wheel.
And of the senators, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile stands out brightly. Whatever his past or his ambitions, at the moment he was called to do his duty as Presiding Officer, he rose to the occasion. The consensus is that he has been even-handed to both sides of the case, strict but fair. Based on my experience, consistently being fair does not come naturally to any person but in fact requires hard work and effort. I honor Senator Enrile for that. Even in the case of Harvey Keh, he was forthright but respectful, not for a minute demeaning the person while holding him accountable.
If the impeachment has survived this far without losing its credibility, some credit must go to Enrile’s hand at the wheel. Safe to say that this generation will see him in a positive light, restoring sobriety to a process marred by the collapse of the Estrada impeachment, and thank him for doing his job.
That, ultimately, is the first and last civic duty of every public official. US President Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail.” Every character in this drama of Truth has had their moment to rise. Whatever the result, it is only fair to give them credit where and when it is due. - GMA News
Tony La Viña is a lawyer and the Dean of the Ateneo School of Government.