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Aquino thanks, hails reviled prosecutors

President Benigno Aquino III. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

They may have been reviled repeatedly for coming to the trial unprepared, but members of the House prosecution panel won the conviction of impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona and that’s all President Benigno Aquino III needed to heap praise and gratitude on them.

In his postimpeachment address Wednesday night, Mr. Aquino singled out the lead prosecutor, Iloilo Representative Niel Tupas, who he said stood his ground despite being subjected to verbal abuse, and Ilocos Norte Representative Rodolfo Fariñas, who he said clarified issues that had gotten muddled.

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“Our prosecution team, led by Congressman Niel Tupas, who didn’t back down despite being reviled and threatened, I also thank,” Mr. Aquino said.

“I also thank Congressman Rudy Fariñas, who made clear the issues that the defense panel were trying to muddle,” he added.

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Mr. Aquino thanked the private prosecutors, “who risked their livelihood and fought the highest magistrate [in the land].”

To the Senate, the President said: “We thank the whole impeachment court, especially Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. If all magistrates were as sharp as you when you think and are just like you in being partial to no one, perhaps, we didn’t have to endure this episode.”

The President thanked Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, who joined the closing arguments in the Senate on Monday, calling on the senators to convict Corona. “To Speaker Sonny Belmonte, who found it fit to stand as the voice and as the leader of the institution that sent the articles of impeachment to the Senate, also my gratitude,” he said.

Mr. Aquino also thanked Corona’s defense lawyers. “Whether deliberate or not, you were able to contribute to the coming out of the truth,” he said.

It was the defense panel that subpoenaed Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales as a hostile witness.

It was Morales who submitted to the Senate a report from the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) that detailed Corona’s US dollar accounts that he did not report in his financial disclosures.

Tuesday night’s call

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Belmonte, members of the  prosecution team, private prosecutors and their staff called on Mr. Aquino in Malacañang on Tuesday night hours after the Senate convicted Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the President personally thanked his allies in the House of Representatives for impeaching Corona and prosecuting him in the Senate.

Voting 20-3 on Tuesday, the Senate impeachment court convicted Corona of culpable violation of the Constitution for dishonesty in disclosing his personal finances. The Senate ordered him removed from office and disqualified from public office.

The action against Corona, who accepted the appointment as Chief Justice from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in May 2010, less than two months before she was to step down, despite a constitutional ban on “midnight appointments,” does not end with his removal from office.

On Wednesday, some of the House prosecutors began calling on Ombudsman Morales to bring criminal charges against Corona for the recovery of his hidden wealth.

Whether they discussed the next step with the President on Tuesday night was not clear, though. Among those who called on Mr. Aquino after Corona’s conviction were Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tanada III, Fariñas, Quezon City Representative Jorge Banal, Akbayan Representative Kaka Bag-ao, Aurora Representative Juan Edgardo Angara and Marikina Representative Romero Quimbo.

Valte said among the private prosecutors present were lawyers Demetrio Custodio and Jose Justiniano. “President Aquino met most of them for the first time and thanked them for volunteering to help,” Valte said.

Institutions strengthened

Valte said Corona’s removal from office strengthened the country’s democratic institutions.

“Mr. Corona is merely the public face of the things that ail our justice system,” Valte said. “Let us never forget that those who come to court, be they rich or poor, must do so in the expectation of receiving impartial justice from those who uphold both the spirit and the letter of the law,” she said.

“The verdict of the Senate is a step forward in terms of restoring public confidence in our courts, and trust in the members of the judiciary,” she said

Forfeiture proceedings

Some of the House prosecutors began urging Morales to initiate forfeiture proceedings immediately against Corona, who admitted in his Senate trial to having P80 million and $2.4 million in the bank that he did not report in his financial disclosures.

Isabela Representative Giorgidi Aggabao, a House prosecutor,  said  the wide discrepancy in Corona’s income tax payments from 2002 to 2010 and the numerous bank transactions in the  AMLC report that Morales submitted to the Senate impeachment court was enough for the Ombudsman to open  forfeiture proceedings against Corona.

“There is a wide, inexplicable variance of cash assets and income,” Aggabao said in a text message. “In such an instance, the presumption of unexplained wealth under the antigraft law kicks in,” Aggabao said. “The onus to show they are legitimate assets rests with Corona during the forfeiture proceedings.”

Hidden wealth

Fariñas said it was up to Morales to pursue the government’s case against Corona for hidden wealth.

“Remember, she had already asked CJ Corona to comment on the complaints filed against him [in the Office of the Ombudsman],” Fariñas said, referring to the April 20 letter of Morales  ordering Corona   to explain in writing how he managed to amass millions in peso and US-dollar accounts in several banks despite his modest government salary.

Fariñas said that while the Constitution states that the judgment in cases of impeachment should not extend further than removal from office and disqualification from public office, Corona would still be liable for criminal prosecution for breaking the laws.

Rebuilding integrity

Representative Juan Edgardo Angara, a spokesperson for the prosecution, said that the Ombudsman had “very broad powers” to pursue the forfeiture case if it desired to punish Corona.

“Certainly the impeachment trial may have given some leads that they can pursue,”  Angara said, noting that Corona himself admitted that he had  P80 million and $2.4 million in the bank.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who testified against Corona, yesterday welcomed the Senate’s decision.

“Foremost of my initial reaction to the verdict, to be honest, is one of cautious relief,” said De Lima, who is attending a human rights conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Relief because, finally, this trying and delicate matter has been settled in such a manner that reason, justice and, most of all, truth ultimately prevailed,” she said.

“Cautious because we now have the opportunity to rebuild the integrity and nobility of several important government institutions,” she said. With a report from Marlon Ramos

Originally posted: 10:26 am | Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

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TAGS: Benigno Aquino III, Chief Justice Renato Corona, Corona Guilty, Corona Impeachment, Corona verdict, Government, Impeachment court, impeachment trial, Judiciary, Politics, Renato Corona, Supreme Court
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