Aquino: Question is simple, can we trust Mr. Corona?
Attending the first of a series of events to mark the 26th anniversary of the EDSA Revolution, President Aquino said Thursday that Chief Justice Renato Corona’s failure to fully declare his multimillion-peso bank deposits was sufficient basis to remove him from his post.
The President wondered why there was still disbelief that Corona had committed an impeachable offense when he declared bank accounts worth only P3.5 million in his 2010 statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) despite evidence presented at his impeachment trial showing his peso deposits then at P31.5 million.
In a speech delivered in Filipino at a “town hall meeting” with students from various universities and colleges at La Consolacion College near Malacañang, Aquino expressed frustration over the lengthy legal discussions in the impeachment trial that, he said, appeared to be aimed at confusing the public and causing it to lose interest in the proceedings.
“Would Juan de la Cruz allow himself to be left out of this process? Are we going to allow only a few to decide for all of us?” Aquino said.
“The question in this trial is rather simple: Can we still trust Mr. Corona? We can answer that with the truth coming out during the trial,” he said.
In the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, the President said he would have a hard time implementing reforms in the judiciary should the impeachment court favor Corona.
To the question of what will happen to his campaign to make corrupt public officials accountable if the court issues a verdict of acquittal, Aquino said: “Extremely difficult, if not impossible.”
A number of senators have expressed doubt that Corona’s misdeclarations in his SALNs constituted a high crime—one of several grounds for impeachment under the Constitution.
The President said Corona should be held up to the same standards that caused court interpreter Delsa Flores to lose her job and other benefits in 1997 after failing to declare ownership of a stall in a public market.
“For a court interpreter, that is the standard. How much is the rent for a stall in the market? For the Chief Justice, should the standard be different?” Aquino said, adding: “If Mrs. Flores lost her job, what do you think should be the verdict on Mr. Corona? Do we even have to ask whether what he did was an impeachable offense?”
“If you were Delsa Flores, what would you feel if you learn that there’s a person who withheld a bigger amount in his SALN?”
The President said the SALN was not mere scratch paper but a document sworn to by every public official, as provided for in Article 11, Section 17 of the Constitution.
He said the Constitution also directs public officials to have their SALNs disclosed to the public.
“As the truth comes out, the reasons why Mr. Corona was hiding his SALNs in a vault are becoming clear,” the President said. “It’s clearer than the light of day. Mr. Corona, the declaration you swore to isn’t consistent with what has been discovered to be your assets. In any school in the world, P3.5 million does not equal P31.5 million.”
‘Cover-up for GMA corruption’
Aquino expressed mock gratitude for Corona for the discrepancies in his SALNs, saying the inconsistencies were drawing attention to the latter’s unexplained wealth.
He also thanked lead defense counsel Serafin Cuevas for seeking the disclosure of Corona’s monthly balances when the impeachment court had just asked for the Chief Justice’s yearend balances.
The President expressed hope that Corona and his lawyers would see the light, but said he doubted that this would happen soon.
“If you did nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide. Let me ask you this. Is this the way a person who has nothing to fear behaves? It’s already difficult to look at his SALNs and until now, he continues to hide his dollar accounts,” the President said.
“He said he would come out with the documents in due time. With due respect, Mr. Corona, many years have passed since you submitted SALNs that beg a lot of questions. When is due time? It seems that your time is long overdue,” the President said.
Aquino also said then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo appointed Corona to the Supreme Court “to cover up for her corruption.”
“Didn’t all of this start only after you almost succeeded in allowing Mrs. Arroyo to flee?” he said, referring to the temporary restraining order (TRO) issued by the Supreme Court on the travel restrictions on the former President, which almost gave her “a chance to hide.”
‘Remove this branding’
In explaining the need for Corona’s conviction, the President cited rulings made by certain courts that, he said, derailed the government’s reform agenda.
One ruling he cited was the 20-day TRO issued recently by a Manila Regional Trial Court on the results of the Department of Justice’s investigation of the former National Bureau of Investigation chief Magtanggol Gatdula, who was sacked in connection with the kidnapping of a Japanese national by NBI agents last year.
“There is an accusation that the NBI kidnapped a person. So you need to investigate it in order to bring back the credibility of the NBI as an institution. But the court now says that the DOJ cannot act on the result of its investigation,” he said in a frustrated tone.
In a statement that elicited applause, he said: “Some would say ‘Only in the Philippines.’ But … I want us to remove this kind of branding.”
The President also said he had been at the receiving end of many criticisms—that he was “a spoiled brat,” “immature,” “a wimp,” and now “a wimpy dictator.”
But even with these criticisms, he said, he wanted the next generation to not undergo what his generation had experienced.
Later in a TV interview, Aquino indicated satisfaction with Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s handling of the impeachment trial.
“He is trying to be extremely fair to all sides,” he said of Enrile, noting that the latter was, after all, a veteran lawyer.
The President also defended the performance of the House prosecution, saying the lawmakers’ not being practicing lawyers was the reason they were not as “polished” as the defense.
Senators Aquilino Pimentel III and Teofisto Guingona III, both allied with the President, said his criticism of the Chief Justice did not amount to interference in the impeachment trial.
“I don’t know how he is interfering. All I know is they’re [both] commenting, but if we are not affected by the commentaries, these have no value,” Pimentel said in Filipino.
“The challenge is for us [senator-judges] not to be affected by the commentaries of other people. We would have to now make our own decision based on the evidence,” he said.
Asked about the propriety of the President continuously attacking Corona and discussing the merits of the case in public, Pimentel said: “If somebody files a motion, then we will take it up. But no one seems to be affected that much…”
Guingona, a member of Aquino’s Liberal Party, said the President’s attacks had a “substantial difference” from the allegation by Corona’s lawyers that the Palace was trying to bribe senators.
Last Sunday, defense lawyers claimed that the offer was P100 million in “soft projects” in exchange for a senator’s vote against the TRO on Corona’s dollar accounts.
But Pimentel said both the defense and the prosecution should be sanctioned. He noted that prosecutors were now under fire for submitting to the Senate purportedly fake documents on Corona’s bank records.
“My attitude now is that both sides should be punished,” Pimentel said.
Tit for tat
In a press conference, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said even the Chief Justice had been criticizing the President and the prosecutors.
Belmonte said that the impeachment trial being a political process, even the senators and the defense had become fair game for criticism.
“And, of course, Corona should not be organizing rallies and speeches,” the Speaker said.
House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II said there was nothing wrong with anyone discussing issues involving Corona.
“Even the respondent, Chief Justice Corona, who is supposedly within the jurisdiction of the impeachment court, how many times has he attacked the Senate?” Gonzales said.—With reports from Christian V. Esguerra and Cynthia D. Balana