Chief Justice Renato Corona concealed 98 percent of his financial assets in clear violation of public trust and of transparency provisions of the Constitution, House prosecutors said Monday in closing arguments at his impeachment trial.
By Ilocos Norte Representative Rodolfo Fariñas’ summation, Corona did not report P180 million in hard cash kept in various bank accounts, referring to the sum of the $2.4 million (about P100 million) the Chief Justice deposited in four banks and the P80 million in commingled funds in three others.
Corona declared only P3.5 million in cash and investments in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) for 2010.
Fariñas accused Corona of resorting to “palusot (lame excuses)” in attempting to explain his failure to include the deposits and high-end real properties in his SALNs.
“The Chief Justice engaged in a buying spree (of expensive real estate) beginning 2004. He did not declare these in his SALN until 2010. We have a new President by then that’s why,” said Fariñas, the second speaker assigned to deliver closing arguments against Corona.
The House prosecutor added that Corona’s actions left more questions than answers.
For example, if he earned so much from his dollar investments, why did Corona have to sell a property to his daughter Carla for P19 million?
Why did the Chief Justice need to borrow P11 million from the proceeds of the sale of a parcel of land owned by Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc. (BGEI) to the city government of Manila? BGEI is owned by the family of Corona’s wife.
Why did he once have a car loan of P300,000?
If Corona earned so much from his dollar investments, why did he not use this to buy a car in cash?
Fariñas also noted that Corona had told Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile that he started investing in dollars “in the late 1960s” when the peso-dollar exchange rate was purportedly P2:$1.
Fariñas said Enrile even made a clarificatory question, asking Corona whether he started investing in dollars in the early or late sixties.
Fariñas said the P2:$1 rate prevailed from 1948 to 1959.
“The Senate President knew the exchange rate then. He was undersecretary of finance from 1966 to 1968,” Fariñas said.
Corona graduated from Ateneo High School in 1966, from college in 1970 and from the Ateneo law school in 1974, the prosecutor said. The 1969 exchange rate when Corona was in college was already P3.90:$1, according to Fariñas.
The lawmaker said the Chief Justice “wants us to believe that when he was in Grade 4 in 1959, he was such a visionary that he already started buying dollars.”
“It’s clear that it’s palusot and lying to the Senate,” he added.
Fariñas said Corona’s other excuses included:
That the impeachment complaint against Corona was the House of Representatives’ effort to support President Aquino’s attempt to get back at the Chief Justice for the Supreme Court decision awarding Hacienda Luisita to farm workers;
That the Foreign Currency Deposits Act (FCDA) absolved him from declaring his dollar accounts;
That the Chief Justice commingled his cash with that of his children.
Skirt of FCDA
Fariñas said Corona could not hide under the skirt of the FCDA, or Republic Act No. 6426, since only banks, not depositors, were bound by its confidentiality provision.
Besides, RA 6713, or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, also provides for the disclosure of assets “such as investments, cash on hand or in banks, stocks, bonds and the like,” the prosecutor said.
“Even cash kept in a baul (trunk) or bank should be declared in the SALN. Even if a defense witness insists that there is no other official who declared his dollars in his SALN, the amount can be converted into pesos. You don’t have to say it’s in dollars. The Chief Justice is making excuses using RA 6426,” Fariñas said.
He reiterated earlier warnings from critics of Corona that the latter’s use of the FCDA to hide his dollar deposits could provide an idea to the rest of public officials who want to hide their deposits.
“What violation of RA 6426 if the Chief Justice rightfully declares his cash? He owned up to the $2.4 million on hindsight because he was caught. Even if he bought dollars at P2:$1, he could not have accumulated that amount,” he added.
Fariñas wondered why Corona took out a car loan of P300,000 when he was able to amass a huge amount. “Why borrow when he claims he has millions?”
The prosecutor then zeroed in on Corona’s peso deposits.
Fariñas said Corona claimed that he was not obligated to declare in his SALN the P80 million in commingled funds because these were not solely his. “Why were the deposits in his name? These could be deposited in joint accounts,” the lawmaker said.
He also wondered whether Corona was converting his pesos into dollars. How come the savings sent by his US-based daughter Charina to the Philippines was part of the commingled peso account? “Should her savings not be in dollars?” Fariñas asked.
“It’s confusing… The dollars his daughter in America earns are converted into pesos? If he has P80 million, why not exchange it for dollars?” Fariñas asked.
“It’s really difficult to make excuses. We tend to contradict ourselves when we do not tell the truth,” he added.
Fariñas noted that Corona put on record that he had two heart bypasses. This, he said, should mean the Chief Justice should be more aware of his mortality and start considering dividing his assets among his children.
Instead, Corona is the one who receives funds from his children, purportedly to add these to the commingled funds. “That’s because it’s not really commingled. It’s just an excuse,” he said.
Fariñas also took note of Corona’s declaration that he and wife Cristina would rather invest their earnings in dollars because they were not in the habit of buying real estate.
“He said, ‘we as a couple do not buy real estate.’ But why did they sell a property to their daughter? Carla has lots of money! A house and lot were sold to her for P19 million,” Fariñas said. “Clearly, it was a palusot.”
Fariñas also noted that the Chief Justice’s P11-million loan from BGEI was a mystery considering his huge peso and dollar deposits.
“If the Chief Justice has that kind of money, his family and his wife’s relatives should not be fighting over BGEI,” the prosecutor said.
Cristina is still embroiled in several court cases with her cousins in connection with BGEI assets. Her conflict with some Basa cousins was highlighted at the height of the impeachment trial.
Fariñas asked the Senate impeachment court not to waste House efforts in pinning down Corona for betrayal of public trust and culpable violation of the Constitution.
The law requires a vote of two-thirds of the Senate members, or 16 votes, to declare Corona guilty of an impeachable offense before he can be booted out of office.
“Let’s not pass up the chance to [convict] Chief Justice Corona. The House and the Senate should be in sync. Otherwise, all will be for naught,” he said.
“If the Senate wants to remove (an impeachable official) but we (House members) do not file a complaint, there’s no case. The House has the sole power to file an impeachment case. We did that and we proved the sin of Mr. Corona,” Fariñas said.
“If an ordinary Supreme Court interpreter can be removed for nondeclaration of a market stall and we don’t remove Renato Corona, our nation will be destroyed,” he warned.
Fariñas said Corona should be removed as Chief Justice of the Philippines. “It would be the greatest disservice to allow him to stay any minute longer,” he concluded.
Iloilo Representative Niel Tupas Jr., House lead prosecutor, said no amount of “denial, no lame excuse whatsoever” could negate the fact that Corona’s SALNs did not “truthfully or accurately” reflect his true material worth.
And even when he included his high-end properties to his SALN in 2010, the report did not reflect the acquisition value of these.
“The Chief Justice declared only their fair market value for taxation purposes, which does not serve the purpose of, and has nothing to do with, the computation of net worth in the SALN,” Tupas said in his opening remarks.
The lead prosecutor added that Corona had “woven a fantastic tale in his desperation to explain his incredible wealth.”
Tupas said it was Corona himself who penned a decision, Republic v. Sandiganbayan and Ferdinand E. Marcos, stating that when an official’s assets are grossly disproportionate to his source of income, then the excess is prima facie ill-gotten.
Tupas blasted Corona for insisting that the FCDA granted absolute confidentiality to his deposits.
“This interpretation of the law is very disturbing. We beg to disagree based on the law itself and the principles of public accountability . . . . The SALN requirement . . . addressed to government officials . . . requires them to declare all their assets . . . and makes no distinction between peso and foreign currency cash assets, in the spirit of transparency and good governance,” he said.
Tupas also accused Corona of “peddl(ing) his position of power in exchange for material gain. It has led us to the truth that his loyalty does not lie with the Filipino people.”
“On the whole, it has led us to the truth that he is in public service not to serve his country but to serve his own ends,” he added.