SC clerk of court turns over Corona SALNs
The impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona finally moved forward Wednesday after senators badgered the Supreme Court’s clerk of court into producing his statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) covering 2002 to 2010 first as associate justice of the Supreme Court and later head magistrate.
Called in as the first witness for the prosecution, Enriqueta Esguerra-Vidal reluctantly turned over to the impeachment court a brown envelope containing the documents, which Corona’s accusers hoped would prove his alleged ill-gotten wealth.
But former Associate Justice Serafin Cuevas, chief defense counsel, sought to quash the second article of impeachment against Corona with the prosecution’s presentation of his SALNs.
Cuevas noted that Article 2 of the impeachment complaint alleged that the Chief Justice committed culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayed public trust “when he failed to disclose to the public” his SALNs.
“The fact alone that there is SALN is proof enough that he has filed and complied with the rules and regulation on the matter,” Cuevas told the court. “That resolves the problem.”
But Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, presiding officer of the court, said that the submission of Corona’s SALNs was merely in compliance with a subpoena issued to Vidal last Tuesday.
“With respect to the conclusions that will arise from this, that will come later,” Enrile told the defense.
Much of the third day of the trial was spent by a number of senator-judges alternately pressuring and convincing Vidal to produce Corona’s SALNs, which, along with those of other court justices, were under her custody.
Vidal, who assumed her post in September 2010, repeatedly begged off, citing a 1989 rule that seeks to protect members of the judiciary from “deceptive requests for information.”
She told senator-judges that she had relayed the subpoena to the Supreme Court en banc for its “information and authorization.”
Risk of showdown
Vidal initially said she did not have the SALNs with her. But under questioning by Senator Franklin Drilon, who salvaged the presentation by private prosecutor Mario Bautista who at that point had not inquired if Vidal had the documents in her possession, she admitted that she carried them with her, prompting Enrile to order her to turn them over to the court.
“We did not subpoena the Supreme Court. We subpoenaed you to produce the record in your custody. So you are now ordered by the chair to surrender these records to this court. The witness must comply,” he said.
In a quandary
A reluctant Vidal, somber in a beige business suit, a red blouse and pearl earrings, made one last attempt to hold back the documents, pleading, “I am really in a quandary. I am in a dilemma because we are covered by the rules of the Supreme Court and also by this honorable court. So may I request that, at least, I get the authorization first from the Supreme Court.”
Senator Joker Arroyo took the floor and suggested that Vidal be allowed to wait at least a day for the high tribunal’s decision on the subpoena. Saying, “I am disturbed by these developments,” he warned that forcing Vidal to comply would “run the risk of having a showdown between the impeachment court and the Supreme Court.”
Senators Francis Pangilinan, Teofisto Guingona III and Drilon, all members of President Benigno Aquino III’s Liberal Party, demanded that Vidal turn over Corona’s SALNs. They were joined by Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano and Senators Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, Juan Edgardo Angara, Aquilino Pimentel III and Francis Escudero.
Cayetano warned that allowing Vidal to have her way would set a bad precedent and “erode the authority of this court.” Escudero told her “not to worry” about the possibility of being penalized for releasing the SALNs in defiance of court policy because she was complying with a lawful order.
Pimentel told Vidal: “The mandate is not to waste time, to make up for the time we lost yesterday!” He was referring to the prosecution’s admission that it was not yet prepared and had only computer-generated documents against Corona.
Proof of ill-gotten wealth
In the end, Enrile reiterated his ruling and Vidal complied. Moments later, Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III called the attention of the prosecutors, who took the envelope and began reading its contents.
“It was asked to be turned over to the court, not to the prosecutors,” Sotto said, drawing laughs from the gallery.
Corona’s SALNs from 2002 to 2010, kept from the public, were later marked as evidence.
Prosecution spokespersons said the SALNs showed that Corona had declared assets worth P14 million and pointed out that one unit alone purportedly under his name in the swank Bellagio condominium at Global City in Taguig was valued at P18 million. The prosecution had earlier released to reporters documents purporting to show that Corona had amassed 45 properties beyond his means, a charge he has denied.
Marikina Representative Romero Quimbo, a prosecution spokesperson, told reporters the “SALN is very important in ground No. 2 for essentially two purposes, it is to prove that there was noncompliance in so far as the SALN law is concerned or (Republic Act No.) 6730, and secondly, to prove the ill-gotten and unexplained wealth of the Chief Justice.”
“This evidence as we will show later will clearly prove that as far as the Chief Justice is concerned, many of the properties he acquired from 2002 up to 2010 could not be explained.”
Representative Niel Tupas Jr., chief House prosecutor, said in a post-trial news briefing that he had noticed no significant increase in Corona’s net worth from 2003 to 2009 and just a P4-million increase in assets from 2009 to 2010. He suggested that Corona may have undervalued his net worth.
“We leave it up to the senators to decide,” Tupas said.
Possible perjury charges
Aurora Representative Angara, deputy spokesperson, also said in a news briefing: “The SALN is filed under oath and if you lied there, you’re liable for perjury. And if you did not declare your assets, that’s ill-gotten wealth and we can file forfeiture cases in the Sandiganbayan. That’s the significance of the SALN.”
The prosecution later called Marianito Dimaandal, records custodian of the Office of the President, who brought with him certified copies of SALN purportedly filed by Corona from 1992 to 2002, before he was named associate justice of the Supreme Court.
But Cuevas was able to solicit an admission from Dimaandal that he could not determine the veracity of the contents of the SALNs because what he had in his possession in the Senate were mere copies. On questioning by Drilon, Dimaandal said that he believed the copies he submitted were a faithful reproduction of the original.
Prosecutors also planned to compare the SALN documents that Vidal had with those to be presented by the assessor’s offices and registry of deeds of Taguig City, Quezon City, Makati City, Pasay City and Parañaque City.
Corona has been accused of failing to disclose expensive properties such as high-end condominium units and houses in these areas in his SALN. He has been accused of having been biased in his decisions on cases involving former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and an obstacle to her prosecution for corruption and electoral sabotage.
Corona agrees to release
Karen Jimeno, one of Corona’s lawyers, later told reporters that Corona had agreed to furnish the impeachment court copies of his SALN while Vidal was being questioned by the senators. This was confirmed by Supreme Court spokesperson Midas Marquez in a news briefing.
“Article 2 alleged that the Chief Justice failed to file his SALN. If we could prove that he had filed his SALN through all the years, then this may boost our case,” Jimeno said in a news briefing during a break in the trial.
Tranquil Salvador III, another defense lawyer, said Corona informed his counsels that it was “OK” to give the Senate a copy of his SALN while Vidal was on the witness stand.
But Salvador said that even though the Chief Justice had given his go ahead to release the documents, it did not mean that Vidal would be spared from possible administrative sanctions from the 15-member high tribunal.
“He was speaking only for himself … the judiciary is an institution, not just the Chief Justice,” he added.
Citing the Supreme Court en banc’s May 2, 1989, resolution which prohibited the public disclosure of the SALN of judges and justices, Salvador said the release of such a document should be approved by the high court.
Responding to a question by Escudero, Vidal said that there had been requests in general for copies of the justices’ SALNs, including Corona’s. None of these requests were granted in view of the Supreme Court’s en banc resolution in 1989 spelling out the guidelines on handling such demands, she said.
After nearly four hours of questioning, Vidal was allowed to go, but the prosecution said they planned to recall her later. With reports from Marlon Ramos, Cynthia D. Balana and Jerome Aning
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