‘No special discount for Corona’
A typhoon, coupled with the impact of a global financial crisis, allowed Chief Justice Renato Corona to acquire a 303.5-square-meter penthouse condominium unit at The Fort in Taguig City in 2009 at a “reduced price.”
A key prosecution witness called on Day 9 of Corona’s impeachment trial to show that the Chief Justice got a hefty P10-million “discount” because of cases pending in his court in the purchase of the unit at the Bellagio ended up giving testimony in favor of the defense.
Noli Hernandez, Megaworld Corporation’s senior vice president for marketing and sales, told senator-judges that Corona received only a regular 15-percent discount, which would have also been given to any other buyer at the time of the purchase.
In his testimony, Hernandez said Megaworld took some P5 million off the original P24.5-million selling price of the Bellagio penthouse, partly because of the effects of the global financial crisis.
Hernandez said the unit later on bought by Corona—the last unsold at Bellagio—was also unfinished or “semi-bare” and sustained “water damage” from a typhoon.
“We were thinking of maybe repackaging the whole thing or redesigning it … and we decided that it was going to cost us more to have it redone and it made more economic sense for us to give it at a steep discount,” he told the court.
“From P24 million, I decided to just lower the price to P19.6 million. So, there was a reduction of around P5 million because that’s how it was going to cost to have it redone, to go to the market and sell this particular (unit).”
Hernandez added: “Normally, we would not have given the P5-million reduction in (the original) price had the unit not been damaged by typhoon.”
Said Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile: “So, actually, the discount was not because of any favor but because of force majeure?” The witness answered in the affirmative.
Hernandez said the only “special” discount given to the Chief Justice amounted to P1 million. He noted that Megaworld once sold a unit in a separate McKinley project at half its original price.
The witness added that the P5-million price reduction was not made because it was the Chief Justice making the purchase.
“From P19.6 million, we gave an additional, basically P5-million discount and of course, out of that additional P5-million discount, P3 million or 15 percent was given because the client was paying almost in cash,” Hernandez said.
Sensing that the testimony was already favoring the defense, private counsel Joseph Perez tried to stick to the prosecution line that Corona got a P10-million discount—and because of that, should be removed from office—but was repeatedly scolded by Enrile.
Enrile, the presiding officer, appeared irritated when Perez repeatedly mentioned a P10-million “discount” when Megaworld made the original reduction from P24 million to P19.6 million even before Corona came into the picture.
“No, this is not a discount,” the 87-year-old senator told Perez, triggering a reaction from the gallery.
“Counsel, you are twisting the answer. I’m sorry to tell you that. The reduction done voluntarily by the selling company could not be considered the discount. They lowered the price themselves. That is not a discount to anybody. Discount means you’re giving a privilege or a favor to somebody. The discount started at the reduced price of P19.6 million,” Enrile added.
An exasperated Senator Aquilino Pimentel III later advised the prosecution to drop the issue of the alleged discount to build its case against Corona.
“Let go of the discount because it’s not really in the articles of impeachment,” Pimentel said in Filipino.
Enrile lambasted Perez for telling the witness that the deed of sale for the Bellagio property indicated a regular selling price of P24 million but Corona ended up paying only P14.5 million.
Enrile described as “misleading” the question: “Can you just clarify by informing the court how much was the total discount given?”
“According to the witness and the record will bear this out, that unit ought to be priced at P24 million, but because of certain circumstances, moto proprio, company reduced it to P19.6 million,” Enrile said.
“So, that was the specific price decided by no other one but the company so please be sure you do not vary the testimony of the witness selling,” he told Perez.
Enrile repeatedly reminded Perez not to “cross-examine” his own witness, apparently because Hernandez’s testimony seemed to have been favoring the defense already.
“Please do not argue with him. Do not cross-examine him unless you qualify him as a hostile witness. Do what is normal in direct examination,” the senator said.
Senator Manuel Villar, a property developer, told the court that it was “normal” for a real estate company to sell condominiums at a reduced price of 40 percent, citing advertisements recently taken out by a rival firm, SM.
1 win, 2 losses
Under questioning by Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, Hernandez admitted that his company won a case but lost two others in the Supreme Court but that these had nothing to do with the reduced price of the condominium he had acquired.
According to Hernandez, Megaworld won one case against Judge Benedicto Cobarde in a March 2004 decision handed down by the Supreme Court’s third division and penned by Corona four years before he purchased the Bellagio unit. All members of the division concurred with it.
The Megaworld filed a motion for restitution with the trial court seeking to recover from the respondents the principal amount of P5,853,793.01 plus interests which was the amount illegally garnished and obtained by the respondents, he said.
In January 2007, or a year before Corona’s purchase of the Bellagio unit, the first division, of which Corona was a member, dismissed Megaworld’s petition for review against Celerica Holdings.
And then in October 2009, before the Corona couple completed their amortization of the unit, the second division ruled against Megaworld in its case against Mila Tanseco in a decision penned by Justice Conchita Carpio Morales and concurred in by Corona, Hernandez said.
Hernandez said Megaworld lost some P47 million in the cases. He told Senator Panfilo Lacson he brought copies of the rulings to the trial because he knew “what was at stake.” He read a statement quoting the rulings.
“He was part of those who decided on the cases,” Hernandez said of Corona, in answer to Senator Francis Escudero’s question.
Hernandez said Megaworld would have offered the same price to any other buyer.
“Honestly at the time I didn’t even know it was CJ Corona [buying it],” he added.
Questions of relevance
Senators Pia Cayetano and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. rose to question the relevance of Hernandez’s testimony, specifically the reduction of the unit’s purchase price, to Corona’s alleged nondisclosure of his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN).
Senator Franklin Drilon, however, asserted that the Constitution as well as jurisprudence required the truthful and accurate disclosure of the SALN.
The defense has sought the inhibition of Drilon for being partial to the prosecution.
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