The Presiding Officer.
Magandang hapon po sa inyong lahat. Unang-una, gusto kong pasalamatan ang aking mga Kasama sa Senado na ngayon ay ginagampanan ang katungkulan bilang Hukom dito sa paglilitis na ito sa Kataas-taasang Mahistrado ng Kataas-taasang Hukuman sa ating bansa, na siyang tinatawag na guardian ng ating Saligang Batas at ang kalayaan ng ating mamamayang Pilipino.
Gusto ko ring pasalamatan ang mga abogado ng dalawang panig na nandito ngayon, the Prosecution Panel, as well as the Defense Panel, for their untiring effort in participating, in ferreting out the truth in this trial in order to arrive at a just resolution of the case before us. In the entire course of this Impeachment Trial, I have faced many difficult challenges to my own and the Court’s collective wisdom, our sense of justice and fairness, the delicate balancing act that we must perform to ensure that we do not stray from the strictures of the Constitution, the laws and our rules. This trial began and unfolded against the backdrop of a highly charged and emotional atmosphere, acrimonious debates in and out of the confines of this Court and a deep political fissure which threatened the stability of our democratic institutions.
But the impact of the many events that transpired since December 12 last year to this very day, taken together, cannot compare to the sense of heaviness that I feel at this very moment. The culmination of this national drama is at hand. And the time has come for me to render judgment on the person before whom I took my oath of office as a Senator of this Republic, no less than the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Renato C. Corona. The Respondent Chief Justice and his family understandably feel deeply hurt, pained and aggrieved.
As a lawyer, I must confess that I was personally frustrated, really frustrated by the loose and hasty crafting and preparation that characterized the presentation of the charges contained in the Articles of Impeachment. It seems that the case was being built up only after the charges were actually filed. The repeated recourse to this Court’s compulsory processes to obtain evidence which normally should have formed the factual basis of the charges in the first place further burdened and, at times, taxed the patience of this Court.
We have witnessed with disdain the indiscriminate, deliberate and illegal machinations of some parties who have been less than forthright with this Court and its Members in presenting dubiously procured and misleading documents which were spread to the media obviously to influence this Court and the public’s opinion.
The letter of the Land Registration Authority which contained, as an attachment, a list of 45 properties supposedly owned by the Respondent Chief Justice was fed to the media even before we could begin the actual trial of the case.
Even before the Honorable Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales was called to testify before this Court, her letter to the Chief Justice requiring him to explain in 72 hours an alleged aggregate amount of $10 million in several dollar accounts was leaked to the media right before the resumption of this trial last May 7.
We have sternly cautioned against any unethical and unprofessional conduct; the penchant to engage in trial by publicity; to use the media to disseminate and advance so-called information or evidence to provoke and disrespect this Court and its Members; and to irresponsibly hurl disparaging insinuations and accusations. We have tried to impress upon everyone who may be similarly motivated and inclined to test our will that this Court means serious business and would not succumb to or allow such under- handed tactics and gimmickry to deter this Court from our task.
Prudence and justice dictate that in determining the guilt or innocence of the Chief Justice, we must try our best to confine ourselves to the pieces of testimonial and documentary evidence that have been presented to this Court to pass upon their relevance and to measure and weigh their value in the light of the charges before us.
After all the accusations levelled against the Chief Justice, eight (8) charges in all, comprising the Articles of Impeachment, the Prosecution chose to present evidence only on three (3) articles, namely, Article II, Article III and Article VII, and then abruptly rested its case. I always believed that of these three, the case for the Prosecution and the Defense will rise or fall on Article II which is now the subject of our vote.
This Court, at one point, had extensive discussions and differences of opinion, to be sure, regarding the charge contained in Paragraph 2.4 of Article II that the Chief Justice was “suspected and accused of having accumulated ill-gotten wealth, acquiring assets of high values and keeping bank accounts with huge deposits.” We ruled to disallow the introduction of evidence in support of Paragraph 2.4 which, to this day, I strongly maintain, as I am sure my colleagues in this Court strongly maintain, was an invalid charge, it being based on mere suspicion on so-called “reports” rather than on factual allegations.
The Defense and the Chief Justice himself, unhappily, somehow revived this issue of the nature of his assets by introducing evidence to prove that his income and assets were legitimate and by testimony to show how he and his wife have saved and invested these savings in foreign currency over so many decades. At this moment, I wish to reiterate, for the record, that the Chief Justice does not stand accused of having amassed any illegal wealth before this Impeachment Court.
Paragraph 2.2 of Article II of the Articles of Impeachment accuses the Respondent Chief Justice of failing to disclose to the public his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth as required by the Constitution. I submit that the Chief Justice had justifiable and legal grounds to rely on the Supreme Court’s procedural and policy guidelines governing such disclosure as embodied in a resolution promulgated way back in 1989 when the Respondent was not yet a member of the Supreme Court. Under the said guidelines, the Clerk of Court of the Supreme Court, who is the repository of the SALNs submitted by all the members of that High Court, may furnish copies of the SALNs in his or her custody to any person upon request and upon a showing that there is a legitimate reason for the same.
The Constitution in Article XI, Section 17 states that, “In the case of the President, the Vice- President,…the Members of the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Commissions and other Constitutional Offices, and officers of the armed forces with general or flag rank, the declaration shall be disclosed to the public in the manner provided by law.”
RA 6713, known as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, recognizes the public’s right to information on the assets, liabilities and net worth, financial and business interests of public servants. But, it likewise declares it unlawful for any person—and I would like to quote the provision: “To obtain or use the same for purposes contrary to morals or public policy or for any commercial purpose other than by news and communications media for dissemination to the general public.”
Whether, the said guidelines violate the letter and spirit of Republic Act 6713 and the principle of public accountability is not, I repeat, is not for this Court to pass upon. I grant that the Chief Justice believed in good faith that after periodically filing his sworn Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth, the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court were sufficient to allow the Clerk of Court to comply with the Constitution and the law.
We cannot ignore the fact that the failure or refusal, particularly of public officials in high government positions, to provide the public or the media with copies of the SALNs continues to be a raging issue to this day. In fact, some, if not most of the members of the Prosecution panel itself, the Members of the Supreme Court, Members of the Congress and other high officials of the government have been challenged by media organizations and others to make their SALNs available to the public and to the media.
Paragraph 2.3 of Article II further accuses the Respondent Chief Justice, based on reports, of not including some properties in his declaration of his assets, liabilities and net worth in violation of the Anti- Graft and Corrupt Practices Act. The Prosecution, based on the list it procured from the Land Registration Authority, claims that the Chief Justice owned and failed to fully disclose in his SALN 45 real estate assets. Based on the evidence, I am convinced that the Defense has presented credible evidence to refute this charge and to explain the exclusion in the Respondent Chief Justice’s SALN of certain properties which have either been sold or legally transferred; properties which are actually owned by his children and/or third parties; and properties which were never owned by the Respondent Chief Justice in the first place.
I am likewise convinced that the Defense has sufficiently established that there was no ill-intention on the part of the Respondent Chief Justice to understate or misrepresent the value of his real properties.
Proceeding now to the most significant charge involving the nondisclosure of the Respondent Chief Justice’s cash assets, the Ombudsman, at the instance of the Defense, testified with a presentation of a report from the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) showing 82 bank accounts allegedly belonging to the Respondent. She further testified that based on her analysis of the report aided by the Commission on Audit, the Chief Justice had cash assets in the examined bank accounts of anywhere from $10 million to $12 million. Even if we grant the existence of these 82 accounts, the amount of deposits corresponding to each of these could not just easily, fairly or logically be summed up to arrive at exactly how much cash assets or deposits in actuality and in totality the Respondent Chief Justice had or has at any given point of time. Hence, the Ombudsman’s reference to the transactional balance of about $12 million should not mislead this Court in its appreciation of the facts.
Regrettably, both the Prosecution and the Defense panels decided not to present the concerned bank officers or the AMLC to ascertain the veracity of the data allegedly provided by the AMLC to the Office of the Ombudsman despite the Respondent’s submission to this Court of a written waiver to cause the opening of all his bank accounts. Laudable as this belated act on the part of the Respondent Chief Justice may be, it would have served him better if he had just presented bank documents as evidence to either confirm or refute the documents showing his bank transactions as presented by the Ombudsman.
It has not escaped this Presiding Officer that initially, last May 22nd to be exact, before he walked out of this Court, the Chief Justice signed the said waiver in open court but made the release of the same conditional, that is, after all the 188 signatories to the Articles of Impeachment and Senator-Judge Franklin Drilon have signed a similar waiver. It was only during the hearing last May 25 that the Chief Justice decided finally to submit a waiver to this Court without any preconditions.
Moreover, even as the Chief Justice had full access to his own bank accounts and all the opportunity to introduce evidence to disprove the data, findings and analyses presented by the Ombudsman or the report of the AMLC, the Defense did not introduce any such evidence. As it is, the Impeachment Court could only rely on the documents supplied by the Ombudsman which showed the Respondent’s bank transactions but which do not show the actual bank balances of Respondent’s bank accounts.
Instead, the Defense presented the Chief Justice himself as its last witness and pleaded for the Court’s permission to allow the Respondent Chief Justice to deliver an opening statement. This Court out of courtesy to the Chief Justice, as the highest magistrate of the land, decided to extend that courtesy to him its understanding, and to exercise utmost liberality in granting the request for him to speak before us.
The long narration where the Chief Justice touched on a wide range of issues, assertions of facts, accusations, opinions and personal sentiments where the Respondent said he found necessary to narrate in order to clear his and his family’s name, was later adopted by the Defense as the direct testimony of the Respondent Chief Justice. The Prosecution, on the other hand, waived its rights to cross-examine the Chief Justice provided the Defense would not conduct any further direct examination. Nevertheless, the Respondent Chief Justice testified and admitted, in answer to questions from a Member of this Court, that he had around P80 million in three (3) peso accounts and $2.4 million in four (4) US dollar accounts, but that he had purposely not declared these assets for two reasons: One, that his peso accounts represented commingled funds; and two, that he was not required to report or declare his foreign currency deposits in his SALN because they were, according to him, absolutely confidential under RA 6426.
Ladies and gentlemen of this Court, aking mga kababayan, I disagree on both counts. If, indeed, any of the Respondent’s cash deposits were commingled with the funds belonging to other parties such as the Basa-Guidote Enterprise Inc. or his children, the Respondent was still duty- bound under our laws to declare these deposits in his SALN, they being admittedly under his name by his own very declaration.
The evidence is devoid of any indication that the Chief Justice was holding these funds in trust for or that they were actually beneficially owned by anyone other than himself or his wife. Assuming that any part of such deposits in truth belong to third parties, the Respondent could have indicated such third party funds as corresponding liabilities in his SALN. That would have reflected his true and real net worth.
With all due respect, I believe that the Respondent Chief Justice’s reliance on the absolute confidentiality accorded to foreign currency deposits under Section 8 of Republic Act No. 6426 is grossly misplaced. The Constitution, in Article XI, Section 17, provides that, and I would like to quote it: “A public officer or employee shall, upon assumption of office and as often as may be required by law, submit a declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities and net worth.” The oath required him to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. So help him, God.
Are we now to say that this constitutional command, mandatory as it is, is limited to public officials, assets or deposits in local currency? If so, would we not be saying, in effect, that the Constitution allows something less than a full, honest and complete disclosure under the first sentence of Section 17 of Article XI?
It bears noting that the prescribed form of the SALN quite simply requires public officers and employees to declare their assets, real and personal, the latter to include cash and bank deposits, bonds and others. It does not require the public officer or employee to indicate whether or not he or she has foreign currency notes or deposits. Neither does it require details such as account numbers, account names, bank identities, nor any branch addresses. All that it requires is a declaration under oath of the total amount of funds deposited in any bank account or accounts maintained by the public official or employee concerned.
Surely, the Chief Justice knows the equivalent value in local currency of his foreign currency deposits to be able to declare the same as part of his assets, especially since the aggregate amount of this foreign currency deposits by his own account under oath amounts to US$2.4 million. The nondisclosure of these deposits in both local and foreign currency would naturally result in a corresponding distortion of the Chief Justice’s real net worth.
Consistent with the position taken by this Court in the case filed by the Philippine Savings Bank before the Supreme Court last February, pursuant to which the Supreme Court issued a Temporary Restraining Order, I maintain that the constitutional principle of public accountability under Article XI of the Constitution overrides the absolute confidentiality of foreign currency deposits. The provision of RA 6426 cannot be interpreted as an exception to the unequivocal command and tenor of Article XI, Section 17 of the 1987 Constitution. And I regret that the highest magistrate of the land no less would think otherwise.
Section 8 of RA 6426 provides that, “except with the written permission of the depositor” —I would repeat—”except with the written permission of the depositor”—and I quote, “in no instance shall foreign currency deposits can be examined, inquired or looked into by any person, government official, bureau or office whether judicial or administrative or legislative or any other entity whether public or private.”
Any other interpretation of this provision would be unwarranted and the term “any person” would not include the depositor. The so-called conflict of laws between RA Nos. 6713 and 6426 is more illusory than real to me. Section 8 of RA No. 6426 merely prohibits the examination, inquiry or looking into a foreign currency deposit account by an entity or person other than the depositor himself, because that depositor knows his deposit and he can reveal it, if he wants to, without any penalty or punitive sanction against him, unlike others who would reveal it. But there is nothing in RA No. 6426 which prohibits the depositor from making a declaration on his own of such foreign currency funds, especially in this case where the Constitution mandates the depositor who is a public officer to declare, under the Constitution itself, all assets owned by him or his family under oath.
Some have raised the question: Why should the Chief Justice be held accountable for an offense which many, if not most others in government are guilty of, perhaps even more guilty than he is? They say that hardly anyone declares his true net worth anyway.
Here lies what many have posited as a moral dilemma. I believe it is our duty to resolve this “dilemma” in favor of upholding the law and sound public policy in this country. If we were to agree with the Respondent Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that he was correct in not disclosing the value of his foreign currency deposits because they are absolutely confidential, can we ever expect any SALN to be filed by public officials, no matter how high and no matter how low, from hereon to be more accurate and true than they are today? I do not think so.
I am not oblivious to the possible political repercussions of the final verdict we are called upon to render today. I am deeply concerned that the people may just so easily ignore, may forget, if not completely miss out, the hard lessons we all must learn from this episode, instead of grow and mature as citizens of a democratic nation.
Those whose intentions and motivations may be farthest from the lofty ideals of truth and justice are wont to feast upon this man’s downfall should this Court render a guilty verdict, as I think it would. I am quite equally aware of the tremendous pressures weighing heavily upon each and all of the Members of this Court as we had to come to a decision on this case, one way or the other. But to render a just verdict according to my best lights and my own conscience is a sacred duty that I have taken on myself that I have sworn to perform.
As one who has been through many personal upheavals through all of my 88 years, I, too, have been judged, often unfairly and harshly. But I have constantly held that those who face the judgment of imperfect and fallible mortals like us have recourse to the judgment of history, and, ultimately of God. And so, with full trust that the Almighty will see us through the aftermath of this chapter in our nation’s history, I vote to hold the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Renato C. Corona, guilty as charged under Article II, paragraph 2.3 and that his deliberate act of excluding substantial assets from his sworn Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth constitutes in my humble view as a member of this Court, a culpable violation of the Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines.