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CORONA IMPEACHMENT

Senate slams House panel

Prosecutors told disclosure of CJ Corona’s penthouse against impeach rules

DAY IN COURT The Senate session hall has been spruced up, redesigned and all’s set for the start of the unprecedented impeachment trial of a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on Jan. 16. RICHARD REYES

Hold your horses.

The House of Representatives’ 11-member panel that will prosecute the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Renato Corona drew flak on Wednesday not only from his lead lawyer but also from senators and Catholic bishops for its purported overzealousness.

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The senators who are to serve as judges in Corona’s impeachment trial expressed dismay at Iloilo Representative Niel Tupas Jr.’s disclosure of the Chief Justice’s purchase of a high-end penthouse and encouraged him and the other prosecutors to take a close look at Rule XVIII of the “Rules of Procedure on Impeachment Trials.”

Rule XVIII states that the presiding officer (in this case, the Senate President) and the members of the Senate “shall refrain from making any comments and disclosures in public pertaining to the merits of a pending impeachment trial.” It adds that “[t]he same shall likewise apply to the prosecutors, to the person impeached, and to their respective counsel and witnesses.”

FEATURED STORIES

Senator Panfilo Lacson suggested that he and his colleagues “throw our impeachment rules out the window or straight at [the House prosecutors’] faces.”

Senator Gregorio Honasan cautioned the prosecutors against the “swaying effect” that their revelation might have on public opinion.

“Masyado silang atat (They are too eager),” Senate President Pro Tempore Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada said of the prosecutors.

“Why, would it be the media who would decide Corona’s fate? So they have documents proving that Corona owned all these condo units? Present those to the Senate! The problem is that some parties seem to have a mind-conditioning agenda,” Estrada added.

But Tupas, who heads the House prosecution panel, denied that there was any violation of the Senate rules.

Tupas held a news conference on Tuesday to present documents concerning a 303.5-square-meter unit in The Bellagio in Taguig City bought by Corona and wife Cristina in December 2009.

He accused the Chief Justice of failing to declare the property in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN).

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Tupas also said that the unit in The Bellagio was but one of four properties traced to Corona, and that the panel would release more documents in the coming days.

‘Weak’ evidence

Speaking on Wednesday with a group of reporters at his office in Makati City, Corona’s lead counsel, Serafin Cuevas, said the prosecution panel’s move was proof that the evidence against the Chief Justice was “weak.”

“They are really trying to demonize the Chief Justice,” said Cuevas, 83, a retired Supreme Court justice.

“I hope I’m wrong. But there could be no motive whatsoever, except [to sway] public opinion and to portray Corona as a violator of the law and a tax evader,” he said.

Asked if the House prosecutors’ action was tantamount to a trial by publicity, Cuevas said: “There’s no question about that. Do you still question that? But it’s not the general public that will decide [Corona’s fate]. It’s the impeachment court.”

He added that by disclosing proof of Corona’s supposed misdeeds to the media, “one cannot be precluded from making the opinion that their evidence is weak.”

‘Political trial’

On Radio Veritas, some Catholic bishops said Corona was facing a “political trial.”

“If [the prosecutors] have a case against Corona, they must prove it, they must continue to investigate. But the public must learn to be critical and not be quick to judge because nothing has been proven yet,” said Novaliches Bishop Emeritus Teodoro Bacani.

Bacani reminded the public that someone who was being investigated was not necessarily guilty.

Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes aired a similar reminder.

He said the presentation of documents suggesting that Corona had amassed illegal wealth was “a strategy” to ensure a successful impeachment, “just like what happened to former President Joseph Estrada, who was ousted.”

“That is how an impeachment goes.  It is not a court [trial] but a political one,” Bastes said.

‘Balancing act’

Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III said Tupas’ disclosure showed that “he is already violating the rules of the impeachment court.”

But Sotto would not say whether Tupas could be penalized for his action.

Senator Francis Escudero also said that under the impeachment rules, senator-judges were not the only ones required to refrain from making comments.

“This also applies to the complainant, the respondent, lawyers and witnesses,” he said in a phone interview.

Escudero, however, said Tupas could not be cited for contempt for his action.

“But there is a need to remind everyone of the rules. This is not a prohibition, this is not sub judice, but an admonition to refrain from doing it… It is a balancing act,” Escudero said, adding:

“There can be no showdown (paghahamunan), no mud-slinging or washing of dirty linen in public [at present] as the case is now with the impeachment court.”

Trillanes

Only Senator Antonio Trillanes IV seemed to back Tupas and his team.

“They are just trying to win over the public to their position, which is a good strategy,” Trillanes said in a text message. “It is but part of the impeachment process, which is more political than judicial in nature.”

But Lacson and Honasan, Trillanes’ seniors at the Philippine Military Academy, would have none of it.

“As a senator-judge, I cannot sit idly by and watch blatant violations of our rules,” Lacson said in a text message.

Said Honasan: “Why can’t they wait for the trial to begin?  We already convened as an impeachment court last month.  It’s just that we had to take a holiday break. But we will be back at 2 p.m. of January 16.”

‘Telenovela’

Lacson warned that if any participant in the impeachment trial would be allowed to commit “such undisciplined public presentation of evidence … the Senate may lose control of the situation.”

“And I am certain it will damage not just the Senate as an impeachment court but the sacredness of the whole impeachment process as well,” he said.

Honasan echoed the sentiment, saying: “It does not serve public interest when they hold a press conference for this, especially since our secondary objective is to raise public awareness on issues surrounding the impeachment [of Corona].”

He added: “We senator-judges should be the center of their attention when formal proceedings begin.”

Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz, on the other hand, warned senators against engaging in grandstanding at Corona’s impeachment trial.

Cruz also said he was expecting the trial to be a “telenovela” because, he pointed out, some reelectionist senators were sure to take their time in voting as to secure their victory in the 2013 elections.

“There will be many motions that will be filed, so it’s going to be a very long process… And since the 2013 balloting is fast approaching, many senators seeking reelection will consider their [candidacy] in whatever decision they make in the trial,” the archbishop said.

Arguing before public

Cuevas said Corona’s legal team would ask the Senate to “prohibit” the House prosecutors from further presenting to the public the supposed evidence against the Chief Justice.

“My honest opinion is that [the revelation about the unit in The Bellagio] should not have been done because we are prohibited from discussing in public the merits and demerits of our respective articulation or postulation,” Cuevas said.

“That’s not in accordance with the rules of the Senate. In doing so, it’s like they are arguing this case before the public,” he said.

But according to Cuevas, the defense will have to wait for the formal start of the impeachment trial on Jan. 16 before filing any pleading with the Senate.

Wait for trial to begin

“We will definitely invite the attention of the impeachment court that there should be some remedy to stop this kind of trial [by publicity]. Secondly, it’s a violation of the very rules of the impeachment court,” he said.

Cuevas called on the House prosecutors to wait for the impeachment trial to begin before releasing other supposed evidence against Corona, “if they believe they have a very strong case versus the Chief Justice.”

“They are good lawyers, all 11 of them. Why release the alleged evidence to the press? Let’s just argue during the trial,” he said. With a report from Jocelyn R. Uy

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TAGS: Congress, Corona Impeachment, Impeachment court, Renato Corona, Senate
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