By Perry Diaz
On November 17, 1973, the embattled U.S. President Richard Nixon faced media editors and defended his record in the Watergate scandal in June 1972, saying that he never profited from his public service. “People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got,” he said.
But it was not enough that Nixon emphatically insisted, “I’m not a crook.” Faced with certain impeachment in the U.S. House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974.
Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona’s trouble with the law has stark similarity to Nixon’s attempt to deceive the public. “I’m not a crook” was a forceful statement that is not dissimilar to saying “I am innocent,” which is a more subtle way of conveying the same message. In January 2012, when Corona’s impeachment trial began, he declared: “Only death can stop me from defending myself against my enemies. I am innocent of all the charges being leveled against me.”
Last May 22, Corona took the witness stand to testify in his own defense. He requested to deliver his opening statement to the people, which the presiding officer and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile allowed.
His opening statement turned out to be a scathing attack against President Benigno Aquino III whom he accused of orchestrating the impeachment case, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, Land Registration Authority (LRA) Administrator Eulalio Diaz III, the House prosecution team, the media, critics, and members of the Basa-Guidote clan. He spared no one; not even the deceased patriarch of the Basa-Guidote clan, Jose Ma. Basa III, whom he insulted — and defamed — by saying that he was an unemployed “spoiled brat” who oppressed his own mother and lived off his parents’ money.
The highlight of his “opening statement” was his debunking of the testimony of Carpio-Morales who testified before the impeachment court on May 14 and presented a 17-page report prepared by the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), which detailed 705 transactions involving 82 dollar deposit accounts and 31 peso deposit accounts owned by Corona in nine branches of five banks in Metro Manila. Corona claimed that he currently has only four dollar deposit accounts and three peso deposit accounts, which he admitted were not reported in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN). He said the other accounts had already been closed.
After almost three hours of emotional testimony — dramatized with tearful moments — Corona declared that he had no legal duty to disclose his dollar accounts in his SALN due to the foreign currency deposit confidentiality law. However, in an unexpected twist, he pulled out a pen from his breast pocket and signed a document, which he said was a waiver authorizing banks to disclose his dollar and peso deposit accounts. He also authorized AMLC, LRA, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and the Securities and Exchange Commission to disclose his records. And finally, he directed the Clerk of Court of the Supreme Court to release his SALNs from 2002 through 2011. It was brilliantly executed and electrifying! Bravo, maestro!
Then came the stinger! He directed his defense team to distribute blank copies of the same waiver he signed and challenged Sen. Franklin Drilon and the 188 congressmen who signed the impeachment complaint to do the same. And in a display of defiance, he declared: “This is not a manipulation. This is a challenge to public accountability. I am no thief, no criminal, I haven’t done anything wrong but I am also no fool.”
And then he said that if they declined to sign their waiver, there was no point in his waiver and he directed his defense team to rest the case. He then stood up saying, “The Chief Justice of the Republic of the Philippines wishes to be excused,” and walked out.
Enraged by Corona’s walkout, Enrile ordered a lock-down, which prevented Corona and his wife Cristina from leaving the Senate building to the basement garage where his car was waiting by the exit door… with engine running.
Prevented from leaving the building, the Coronas went to the Senate clinic and then to the Senate executive lounge. He emerged on wheelchair together with his son-in-law, Dr. Constantino Castillo, who told the media that Corona was suffering from low blood sugar and high blood pressure, and was feeling dizzy.
One hour after he walked out, Corona went back to the trial room on a wheelchair. After Enrile dressed down defense counsel Cuevas, he directed Corona to return the next day for direct and cross- examination. The Coronas then took off and went directly to Medical City.
The following day, Corona did not show up at the resumption of the trial. Cuevas informed Enrile that Corona was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit for “close monitoring” for 48 hours because he was considered a “high risk” for possible heart attack.
Enrile then ruled that the defense bring Corona back on May 25 at which time the defense would finish its formal offer of documentary evidence. He directed the prosecution and defense teams to be ready to make their closing arguments on May 28. And with finality, he said that a verdict would be rendered the same day or the following day at the latest.
Can of worms
What puzzles me is: Why did Corona walk out? Based on the verbal and body language that I observed, I believe that Corona used the impeachment court as bully pulpit to attack Aquino and others whom he perceived as the real perpetrators and conspirators of his impeachment. In my opinion, Corona didn’t want to be subjected to a grueling cross-examination where the prosecution could pry deeper into his financial affairs and open a can of worms that would only strengthen the case against him.
It was a no-win situation for Corona. But in the end, he avoided the dreaded cross-examination and instead opted to leave it to the discretion of the senator-judges to decide whether to swallow his testimony hook, line and sinker without the benefit of cross-examination.
But he could have avoided the cross-examination without drawing the ire of the senator-judges – and the public — by simply asking the presiding officer to excuse him because he was feeling dizzy due to low blood sugar. Enrile wouldn’t have any choice but to let him go.
At the end of they day, it was his arrogance that finally did him in. When he referred to himself in the third person, “The Chief Justice of the Republic of the Philippines wishes to be excused,” he projected himself as being above the impeachment court. His supremacy and primacy couldn’t be questioned in any manner by a bunch of politicians.
It didn’t help Nixon get off the hook by merely saying, “I am not a crook,” 40 years ago. Likewise, I don’t think it would help Corona prove his innocence by merely saying, “I am no thief, no criminal, I haven’t done anything wrong but I am also no fool.” That’s not enough. He had to demonstrate it and live it… convincingly. And that’s what the senator-judges would judge him by.
Going ballistic is not going to cut it!
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“The world suffers a lot. Not because of the violence of bad people, but because of the silence of good people!” – Napoleon