Defense lawyers are gearing up for a crucial phase in the proceedings, putting “finishing touches” on the testimony of a key witness who will “lay the groundwork” for Chief Justice Renato Corona’s likely appearance as the “climax” of the impeachment trial.
Describing Article 2 of the impeachment complaint as the real “battleground,” defense counsel Ramon Esguerra said the witness—a lawyer and a certified public accountant (CPA) —would discuss in detail that “there is every justification for the entries” in Corona’s statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN).
Esguerra said the Chief Justice would then explain the sources of money declared in the SALNs, including those used to purchase properties mentioned in the documents.
“The emerging consensus is he will take the stand,” Esguerra told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in an interview shortly after Corona met with his 12 lawyers for around three hours in Makati City on Friday afternoon.
Asked how soon the Chief Justice would testify, the defense counsel said: “I think logically, he should be the last to take the (witness) stand because it would be anticlimactic if he would come first.”
Trial will resume on March 12 with the defense presentation after the prosecution rested its case last week.
Article 2 alleges that Corona failed to publicly disclose his SALNs and thus, committed a culpable violation of the Constitution.
Esguerra (no relation to this reporter) said Corona made it clear to his lawyers that he had “no problem” testifying in his own impeachment trial. “It cannot be foreclosed,” he said.
In the defense panel’s list of witnesses and documents submitted to the impeachment court on January 31, the CPA-lawyer was not named but was described as an “expert witness” who would “testify that CJ Corona did not violate the Constitution and pertinent laws on the SALN, and that (his) assets came from legitimate sources and the values he used thereon have legal basis.”
The testimony will be backed by documentary evidence purportedly showing that Corona “also received allowances and other emoluments as justice of the Supreme Court” and that “he and his wife have the lawful means to acquire the alleged properties.”
Among the evidence would be two separate certifications dated Jan. 5, 2012, regarding the “per diem/allowances” received by Corona as a member of the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal and the Senate Electoral Tribunal.
The defense would also present a separate Jan. 9, 2012, certification on Corona’s “salaries, allowances and other emoluments as Justice of the Supreme Court covering the period of April 9, 2002, to Dec. 31, 2011.”
One concern earlier raised by the lead defense counsel, Serafin Cuevas, was that senator-judges could quiz Corona “on all angles” and defense lawyers could not object under the impeachment trial rules.
Esguerra acknowledged that possibility, saying his camp was trying to avoid a situation where Corona “becomes helpless there as a witness.”
But he said that would only happen if a witness would not be telling the truth.
“It is not difficult if you are telling the truth, no matter how it is turned upside down,” Esguerra said in Filipino.
“You will wonder—why did he decide to fight on if he really was hiding anything? On the properties, why would he put them under his name if he wanted to hide them? He should have come up with a dummy, put up some corporation. He’s a lawyer, remember.”
Delay in declaring unit
One such property is Corona’s condominium unit at The Columns in Makati, which, the prosecution pointed out, was reflected only in his 2010 SALN when the certificate of title was issued on Nov. 3, 2004.
In a legal memorandum dated February 16, Corona’s camp argued that “he became the full owner of the Columns unit only in 2009, when he took actual possession.”
“CJ Corona refused to accept delivery in order to preserve his right to pursue legal remedies against the developer for the repair of the defects and damage to the Columns unit,” according to the memorandum. “For this reason, CJ Corona could not mention the Columns unit in his SALN before 2010.”
Esguerra said the defense would have to “recast” its list of witnesses owing to the withdrawal of the five other articles of impeachment, and by virtue of the Supreme Court’s February 14 resolution preventing its members or employees from testifying because of “judicial privilege.”
The resolution meant that the defense could not present Justices Presbitero Velasco, Roberto Abad and/or Arturo Brion for Article 7.
The article alleges that Corona had favored former President and now Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo through the court’s issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO) allowing her to seek medical treatment abroad last year.
What would probably be left for the defense would be constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas, whose testimony would cover “the substantial issue of the WLO (watch-list order) being subject to judicial review for which the assailed TRO was issued in consonance with the constitutional guarantee of liberty to travel,” according to the January 31 list of witnesses.
Senator Joker Arroyo on Sunday said the prosecution currently had the upper hand, having presented its evidence.
Arroyo said senators were now confronted with the problem of appreciating the evidence required to either convict or acquit the Chief Justice.
“Even evidence that has been excluded by the Senate will unavoidably linger in the minds of the senators,” he said in a phone interview.
Asked which side had the advantage at this stage, Arroyo replied: “The prosecution because they have already presented their evidence and even the public seems to lose interest in the proceedings.”
Senators who are nonlawyers were likely to “look at the evidence in the same way the general public looks at it, the overall impact on their consciousness unruffled by the fine distinctions it entails,” he said.
The senator said it was right for the prosecution to drop the five remaining charges against Corona and just focus on the three articles of impeachment, evidence on which they had presented in seven weeks of trial so far.
“Why waste and scatter efforts and good will on the five articles they belatedly found out to be weak? Their concentration on three articles strengthens their position and they don’t lose any advantage,” Arroyo said.
But he admitted that prosecutors were “hampered by the haphazard and ill-prepared articles of impeachment.”