Chief Justice Renato Corona on Tuesday sprang a surprise on the Senate impeachment court by waiving the confidentiality of his local and dollar accounts in an emotional testimony, but on certain conditions.
At the end of his three-hour opening statement,” Corona signed in open court a draft waiving the confidentiality of his four dollar accounts, but challenged Senator Franklin Drilon, who has helped the prosecutors ferret out evidence against him from witnesses, and the 188 lawmaker-complainants to do the same.
But if anyone of them failed to do this, Corona, who by turns was teary-eyed, said there was “no point” in his waiver, and that he would instruct his defense team to rest the case, drawing boos from the gallery.
Corona then asked to be excused, rose from the witness chair and walked out of the Senate session hall, without the permission of Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. Angered, Enrile ordered the Senate security to shut down all gates.
His lawyers said Corona, a diabetic, had a bout of dizziness, ostensibly from low blood sugar. Rico Paolo Quicho said Corona was taken to Medical City in Pasig City directly from the Senate for a “routine medical checkup.” He added that what happened to Corona was “no drama.”
Tranquil Salvador III, also of the defense, said Corona had to stay overnight at the hospital “to monitor his health condition.”
For close to three hours on the witness stand before a packed courtroom and a national television audience, the 63-year-old Corona narrated his defense, turning emotional and coming to tears at some points.
And saving the best for last, the chief magistrate debunked the “damning” testimony by Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales that he kept $10 million to $12 million in 82 accounts in five banks, and more than P200 million in peso accounts, with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation.
Lashing out at what he called the Ombudsman’s “lies,” he maintained that he had only four dollar accounts and three peso accounts.
He said he did not declare the dollar accounts in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) because these were covered by absolute confidentiality under the Foreign Currency Deposits Act, as well as the peso accounts because these were “co-mingled” funds consisting of the proceeds from the sale of a Manila property owned by the family of his wife, as well as the Corona family’s savings.
And then Corona did the unthinkable: he signed a draft waiver authorizing all banking institutions, the Anti-Money Laundering Council, Bureau of Internal Revenue, Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Land Registration Authority to disclose to the public any information showing his assets, business interests and financial connections, including his wife’s.
‘Moment of truth’
In the same waiver, he authorized the Supreme Court clerk of court, with permission from the tribunal en banc, to immediately release his SALNs from 2002 to 2011.
But he dropped another bombshell. He dared Drilon and the 188 lawmakers who filed the impeachment complaint against him on Dec. 12, 2011, to sign the same waiver, instructing defense lawyers to distribute blank copies of the waiver he had just signed.
“I am humbly asking all 188 complainants from the House of Representatives, led by the congressmen in the prosecution panel, and Senator Franklin Drilon, to join me in a moment of truth,” he said, drawing shouts from the gallery, “as a gesture of transparency and reconciliation with the Filipino people and to one another.”
“This is what the country is asking for. Let us face the people together. The nation is at a standstill. Our people are watching all of us. Our people have been drawn into this intriguing web of dissension and divisiveness. This proceeding has divided the nation. We owe it to the people. Let’s together show them we are first and foremost their public servants, and we surrender to their call for transparency and accountability. Let us rise to the occasion and prove to them that we deserve their trust,” he added.
“I beg you, ladies and gentlemen of the prosecution, not to engage me in argumentation about who is on trial here. We—you and me—are on trial here. Let’s stop all the posturing to show the Filipino nation what we’re made of. This is no trick or manipulation. This is an invitation, a challenge for public accountability made only with the hope that we can all together give our nation one shining moment in public service.”
‘I am no thief’
Corona said the lawmakers could reject the challenge, but said this would imply that there was “no legal obligation or duty to disclose foreign currency deposits.”
“If any of you should choose to decline, I regret that there is no point in my waiver because this will allow the completion of persecution I have suffered. I am no thief. I am no criminal. I have done no wrong. But honorable senators, I also am no fool,” he said.
He said he was hopeful the lawmakers would accept his challenge “otherwise I stand by my actions, as being completely founded on the law itself.”
He said he would submit the waiver he signed to the appropriate agencies but only if the “189 waivers have been signed,” drawing hoots from the gallery. “Otherwise, I would instruct the defense panel to rest the cause since they have not proven anything.”
Corona then turned to Enrile, “the Chief Justice of the Philippines wishes to be excused.” He rose from his seat, and quietly marched to the exit, as supporters in the gallery applauded.
Many, including Enrile, did not notice this, because he made his exit while lead defense counsel Serafin Cuevas was making a manifestation to indicate that he had testified too long on the stand.
Soon after, Enrile noticed that the accused was not on the stand, tersely telling Cuevas that he had not been discharged, and murmurs filled the gallery.
“We’ve not discharged the Chief Justice, with due respect to him … Counsel for the defense, will you kindly advise your client to return to the witness stand. I respect him as a Chief Justice but this court must be respected,” Enrile said, admonishing the gallery to keep quiet.
An apologetic Cuevas said he would seek out Corona, saying: “There was misunderstanding. May I ask for one-minute suspension to have him called back. I’m very sure it’s not out of disrespect for the court.”
Enrile suspended the hearing and instructed the Senate sergeant-at-arms to “close” all the doors. Cuevas later said Corona was taking some medicine and “attending to personal necessity.”
After a break, Enrile, visibly irked, told Cuevas he was giving Corona until Wednesday afternoon to undergo cross-examination by prosecutors otherwise his testimony would be stricken off the records and the senator-judges would forthwith decide the case on the basis of evidence presented during the four-month trial.
Cuevas said that Corona suffered from hypoglycemia—a spell of dizziness—as a result of his diabetes. “I assure the court there is no intention to violate nor to degrade this court. I take it upon myself, your honor.”
Wagging a finger and his voice rising, Enrile said: “I have high respect for the Chief Justice, for the institution he represents. But I equally demand respect for the institution that I represent. I am not going to allow any slight, any abuse of authority against this court for as long as I am the presiding officer.
Constantino Castillo, husband of Corona’s daughter Carla, said his father-in-law felt dizzy and became wobbly due to hypoglycemia. Castillo, a urologist and surgeon, said the Chief Justice was not able to take his lunch because “he was very nervous and very anxious preparing for this.”
“We’ve given him (soda) and a brownie cake. He’s now feeling better,” he said. With reports from Cathy Yamsuan, Marlon Ramos, Gil C. Cabacungan and Leila B. Salaverria