by Perry Diaz
The recent impeachment and removal of Renato Corona as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines was without precedence in the annals of Philippine jurisprudence. However, the impeachment trial was fraught with uncertainty and high drama, which up to the very end could have gone for conviction or acquittal. But the final verdict of 20-3 for conviction was meted out based on Corona’s own admission or “confession” — on the last hour of the last day of his testimony — that he owns dollar and peso deposits amounting to $2.4 million and P80.7 million, respectively, which he did not report in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN). It was an act of “hara-kiri” knowing full well that by his admission his fate was sealed. But did he have a choice?
But the sad denouement was not scripted nor predicted. Up to that last act, a conviction was doomed from the start of the impeachment trial, which lasted 44 days. On the one hand, the House prosecution team was unable to present clear and convincing evidence. They simply didn’t have the prosecutorial aptitude to make their case. On the other hand, the defense team – consisting of top defense lawyers led no less by the seasoned retired Supreme Court Justice Serafin Cuevas – managed to dispute the credibility and veracity of the evidence.
But it was the defense team’s own undoing that shattered Corona’s defense. When the members of the defense team demanded that Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales testify as a condition for Corona to take the witness stand in his own defense, they didn’t realize that what they did was akin to opening the gates of Troy to accept a gift – a wooden horse – from the Greeks that would destroy the fortress-city from within. And when Carpio-Morales presented the damning 17-page report from the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) that detailed 705 transactions – movement of money – involving 82 bank deposit accounts in Corona’s name, Corona’s once formidable defense collapsed just like what happened to ancient Troy.
On May 29, 2012, the senator-judges voted to convict Corona. How did that happen? A few days after Corona was dealt the “guilty” verdict, Sen. Loren Legarda revealed that two days before that fateful day, seven senator-judges – the “Magnificent Seven” — met at her home to ponder Corona’s guilt or innocence. Led by Senate President and Presiding Officer Juan Ponce Enrile, the powerful bloc of senators consisted of Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada, Majority Leader Tito Sotto, Gregorio Honasan, Loren Legarda, Manny Villar, and Ramon Revilla Jr.
Ultimately, it was Corona’s admission of not reporting his dollar and peso deposits in his SALN that sealed his fate, and as a consequence, the members of the Enrile bloc decided that Corona was guilty of not reporting the true value of his assets in his SALN, which was the essence of Article II of the Articles of Impeachment.
With emphasis on truthful SALN disclosure as a key factor, the 20 senator-judges who voted for conviction hinged their judgment solely on Corona’s failure to report his dollar and peso deposits, which is a violation of Section 17 of Article 11, which mandates: “A public officer or employee shall, upon assumption of office and as often thereafter as may be required by law, submit a declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities, and net worth. In the case of the President, the Vice-President, the Members of the Cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Commissions and other constitutional offices, and officers of the armed forces with general or flag rank, the declaration shall be disclosed to the public in the manner provided by law.”
For the first time since the 1986 EDSA “people power” revolution, this “sovereign command” of the 1987 Constitution was enforced upon the highest echelons in the government, no less than the Chief Justice himself. And for the first time, a constitutional officer had been removed from office for culpable violation of the 1987 Constitution and betrayal of public trust.
This is a victory for the Filipino people who have seen how those in power trampled the 1987 Constitution for their own personal interests. The people saw how former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo manipulated them into staging a sham “people power” revolution in 2001 to unseat President Joseph “Erap” Estrada and take over the presidency herself. They saw how Gloria attempted to manipulate and amend the Constitution so she could remain in power indefinitely. They saw how Gloria stacked the Supreme Court with justices loyal to her. They saw how Gloria manipulated the appointment of Corona as Chief Justice during the period banning midnight appointments during elections. And they saw how corruption in government made their lives miserable. But the people persevered hoping that someday their aspirations would be heard by the powers-that-be.
So it did not then come as a surprise that during the impeachment trial, polls taken consistently showed that the people were convinced of Corona’s guilt. The people wanted him removed from office. Yet, the senator-judges were not influenced by public opinion against Corona saying that the evidence was not convincing enough. As Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano told the media during an interview, “I don’t want to convict an innocent man but I don’t want to acquit a guilty man either.” It’s an ambivalence that was leaning more towards an acquittal because, in the final analysis, who would convict an innocent man unless there is clear and convincing evidence of guilt?
But serendipity helped Cayetano out of his dilemma. Right after Corona’s abbreviated testimony on his second and last day on the witness stand on May 25, Cayetano asked Corona: How much unreported dollar deposits did he own? Corona answered, “$2.4 million.” What more did Cayetano want to hear to make up his mind? On May 29, he voted “guilty” as charged.
The turn of events in the final days of the impeachment trial has brought to the forefront of public debate Enrile’s leadership during the trial. He was credited with steering the trial on an even keel avoiding controversial situations that could have rocked the boat.
His sterling leadership had a redeeming effect on his past political life. Having been on the wrong side of history as the Defense Minister during the dark years of the martial law regime of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, he – together with then Gen. Fidel V. Ramos – led the 1986 EDSA “people power” revolution. For once, Enrile was on the right side of history but not for long. After Cory Aquino was installed as President, Enrile stayed out of Cory’s circle and was often alleged to have figured in several attempts to remove her from office through a series of coup d’états.
As a senator-judge during the impeachment trial of Erap Estrada in 2001, Enrile together with 10 others became known as the “Craven Eleven” who voted not to open the “second envelope,” which was supposed to contain Erap’s bank accounts. As a result, the prosecution team led by then Rep. Joker Arroyo walked out; thus, throwing the trial in turmoil. A few days later the sham people power revolution – or “EDSA 2” – erupted and Gloria took over the presidency from Erap.
At age 88, Enrile is back on the right side of history just like where he was during the EDSA revolution. But this time around, the revolution he’s fighting for is to make public officials accountable and transparent to the people.
At the end of the day, his role in the conviction of Corona has been the redeeming moment of his life and deserving of a special place in our history. Indeed, his long and colorful political life can be defined in one short statement: “From EDSA revolution to SALN revolution.” Nothing is loftier or nobler than that.
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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