Lawyer Mario Bautista will have the first crack at questioning Chief Justice Renato Corona during cross-examination when the latter takes the witness stand on Wednesday at his trial in the Senate impeachment court, House lead prosecutor Niel Tupas Jr. said Monday.
Should the need arise, Bautista will be assisted by his fellow private counsels Arthur Lim and Jose Justiniano, Tupas said in a phone interview.
Bautista, Lim and Justiniano are among the 58 private lawyers assisting the 11-member prosecution panel from the House of Representatives.
Aurora Representative Juan Edgardo Angara, a prosecution spokesperson, confirmed in a phone interview that Bautista had been chosen to grill Corona.
“Lead prosecutor Niel Tupas Jr. can argue on certain points,” Angara said.
It was Bautista who conducted the cross-examination last week on Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, who dropped a bombshell with her revelation that the Chief Justice kept $12 million in 82 accounts.
Bautista is the managing partner of Poblador, Bautista and Reyes law firm.
At the onset of the trial in January, Lim, a former president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), incurred the ire of Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago for arguing with the senator over admitting Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares as a witness for the prosecution.
Lim, Santiago and Senator Franklin Drilon belong to the University of the Philippines’ College of Law Class of 1969.
It was Justiniano, a partner in SyCip Salazar Hernandez & Gatmaitan law firm, who elicited crucial information from defense witness Demetrio Coronado Vicente, a cousin of Corona.
Vicente, a bonsai artist, bought parcels of land at Marikina Heights in Marikina City from Corona’s wife, Cristina, in July 1990. The title of the lot is still registered in Cristina’s name.
Focus on 3 issues
Tupas said the cross-examination would focus on three main issues. These are the bank accounts, both peso and dollar; real properties (undervaluation and nondeclaration in several statements of assets, liabilities and net worth); and Corona’s participation in Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc.’s ownership battle between his wife and her surviving aunt and cousins.
House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II laughed off reporters’ suggestions that Tupas take charge in grilling Corona.
“We’d rather have someone, whose daily job is the practice of law, do it than someone like me who has not done it for quite some time,” Gonzales said in a press conference.
He said Tupas and Ilocos Norte Representative Rodolfo Fariñas would deliver the prosecution’s closing arguments.
On the eve of Corona’s testimony, the prosecution panel dined in a Chinese restaurant at Edsa Shangri-La Hotel in Mandaluyong City.
Gonzales described the mood as “OK” as the panel was looking forward to a conviction.
He said the trial had gone beyond the legal confines of the trial court because the defense softened and agreed to address other public issues not included in the original articles of impeachment, specifically Corona’s dollar accounts.
A prosecutor advised Corona not to invoke legal technicalities during his testimony, claiming that the public would not be so forgiving.
But defense spokesperson Karen Jimeno said the use of legal technicalities would ensure that due process was observed.
At the Kapihan sa Diamond Hotel, Bayan Muna Representative Neri Colmenares said: “This (impeachment) is an administrative proceeding, not a criminal proceeding. For you to use technicalities to avoid removal from office would pose a bigger problem.”
“If the Chief Justice will persist on legal argumentation … I do not think the public will be forgiving with that explanation,” Colmenares said.
He said the primary issue was the “moral fitness” of Corona to stay in office.
Jimeno disagreed with the prosecution’s take on invoking legal technicalities. “The defense has always been accused of using technicalities. But then, this is not about technicalities but the observance of due process and what is provided by the law,” she said.
Technicalities are used to ensure that the process is organized and consistent with the Bill of Rights, she said.
“I am still in disbelief why he (Corona) would be made to testify. As far as the prosecution is concerned, he cannot explain the unexplainable,” Colmenares said.
In Cebu City, Deputy Speaker Erin Tañada said Corona might refuse to answer questions and just announce that he would resign.
At a forum organized by IBP-Cebu City and Free Legal Assistance Group, Tañada said he doubted that Corona would answer questions that would tend to incriminate him.
“But of course, the more he expresses his right against self-incrimination, the more the public will turn against him,” he said. With a report from Edison A. de los Angeles, Inquirer Visayas