Ombudsman can probe Corona, says SantiagoBy Marlon Ramos, Michael Lim Ubac
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales is not legally barred from separately investigating impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona for allegedly having $10 million in bank deposits, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, a constitutional expert, said Sunday.
Acting on several complaints filed in her office, Morales ordered Corona on April 20 to explain in writing how he managed to have millions in several peso and US-dollar accounts in the bank in spite of his modest government salary.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer obtained a copy of Morales’ order, and published the story Sunday.
Corona received the order on April 23. Through his lawyer Ramon Esguerra, Corona denied having $10 million in the bank, saying the complaints were part of a “black propaganda” against him. He said the Ombudsman had no jurisdiction over the Chief Justice.
In ordering Corona to explain his alleged bank accounts, Morales cited her powers under Republic Act No. 6770, the Ombudsman Law.
Article XI, Section 13, of the Constitution also authorizes the Office of the Ombudsman to investigate, on its own, complaints against any public official for illegal acts.
The same article, however, states that the Chief Justice is an impeachable official, meaning he can be investigated and impeached only by the House of Representatives and be tried and removed from office only by the Senate. Does this mean the Constitution bars the Ombudsman from investigating Corona?
Santiago said the Constitution does not expressly prohibit the Ombudsman from investigating the Chief Justice.
“It’s a matter of interpretation. There is no categorical prohibition. It’s just the logic of the situation involved,” she said in an interview on dzBB radio.
She said the government had the right to prosecute “an impeachable official like the Chief Justice.”
And as it was the government that brought charges against the Chief Justice, “all the government’s prosecutory resources should be concentrated on proving his guilt,” Santiago said, noting that the penalty after conviction in an impeachment trial is only removal from office and disqualification from running for public office.
The senator said that although the Office of the Ombudsman had the power to investigate Corona, a preliminary investigation by the Ombudsman would “complicate matters because there would be two separate investigations concerning the same subject matter.”
“I would think that is unfortunate at this time because he’s being asked to fight a battle on two fronts,” Santiago said.
But she added that she favored a deferment of the Ombudsman’s preliminary investigation.
“Let him first defend himself [in the Senate],” Santiago said. “If he is found guilty, then he would be the subject of [a criminal] investigation, where the Ombudsman could come in since the Ombudsman is like our fiscal or prosecutor,” she said.
For Corona’s lawyer Esguerra, Morales’ order is nothing but a piece of paper.
In a text message to the Inquirer Sunday, Esguerra said there was no reason for the Chief Justice to comply with the Ombudsman’s order.
He said the Office of the Ombudsman had no jurisdiction over an impeachable public official like the Chief Justice.
“The Chief Justice is still holding his position and any legal action … will have to await the verdict in the … impeachment [trial in the Senate],” Esguerra said.
He said the action of Morales could be intended as preparation “for another impeachment complaint,” a hint that the defense is expecting the Senate to acquit Corona.
Said Esguerra: “If I relate it to the law, Republic Act 6770 and the Constitution, the detractors of the Chief Justice are already laying the groundwork for another impeachment complaint. That is where the investigation by the Ombudsman is headed.”
He said Morales’ order “cannot be for forfeiture of alleged unexplained wealth under Republic Act No. 1379.”
“As stated, the route of the investigation is another impeachment in the future based on alleged ill-gotten wealth that has been barred in the current one,” Esguerra said.
Tranquil Salvador III, one of the defense panel’s spokespersons, said the issues that the Ombudsman raised in her order were “mere reiterations of issues in the impeachment proceedings.”
“To my mind, the complainants … would like to highlight these issues to undermine the advances and successes of the defense in explaining and destroying the alleged 45 properties of the Chief Justice,” Salvador said.
He said the order was also meant to “push the Chief Justice to [take] the witness stand” to explain “funds or accounts [that] actually do not exist.”
Rico Paolo Quicho, another lawyer on Corona’s defense team, said: “The timing is highly suspect. The Chief Justice [will] continue to fight for what is right and will not waver in his commitment to protect [the] independence of the judiciary.”
Esguerra reiterated that Corona did not own $10 million in various bank deposits, saying the information was just “a retaliatory black propaganda and mind-conditioning preparatory to the resumption” of the impeachment trial on May 7.
He said Corona’s camp “somehow expected” the Ombudsman’s order since the complaints were submitted more than a month ago.
“What is telling is that the complaints made no mention of $10 million, but appear to be merely a mirror of accusations in the current impeachment.”
Take the stand
When the impeachment trial resumes on May 7, the defense panel will still be presenting its evidence to counter the charges of culpable violation of the Constitution, betrayal of public trust, and graft and corruption against Corona.
Santiago expects Corona to take the witness stand to fulfill his “promise” to do so, and to “strengthen his defense.”
“Now, what the people are waiting is for the promise of the defendant or the Chief Justice to explain, at the later stage, whatever needs to be explained about his dollar accounts,” she said.
“Since the Chief Justice has promised to tell all even without being forced to do so, then let’s wait for it,” she said.
The Ombudsman could take cognizance of the testimony of Corona pertaining to the dollar deposits during cross-examination by the prosecution, but the Ombudsman’s preliminary investigation could only “muddle” the impeachment trial, she said.
Santiago said that if Corona was absolved by the impeachment court, the Office of the Ombudsman would have “no basis” to proceed with its investigation.