‘Catch me if you can’

‘Catch me if you can’

Has it occurred to you that when a person tries to convince others, more doubts are raised about that person’s sincerity or honesty? Such is the situation that Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona has gotten himself into. It’s likened to a person who falls into a quicksand; the more he tries to get out of it, the faster he sinks. But if that person remained immobile he’d still sink nevertheless. The lesson here is: Don’t go near a quicksand.
And that’s precisely what Corona did when he accepted an illegal appointment from then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo during a period when a ban on “midnight appointments” was in effect. He jumped into a quicksand knowing full well that he might not get out of it! It’s a case of “come what may” or “bahala na.”

It did not then come as a surprise when a year and a half after he reached the pinnacle of his career – a dream come true – Corona found himself in a quicksand of legal and moral questions about his ascendancy to the highest position of the judicial branch of government. And now, he is struggling to save his career and what is left of his reputation. He might have a chance of saving his career; however, it seems that his reputation is now stained indelibly as a result of a slew of damaging evidence that came out at the Senate impeachment trial in which he is accused of culpable violation of the Constitution, graft and corruption, and betrayal of public trust.

When the Senate impeachment trial began, Corona’s battery of topnotch lawyers led by retired Supreme Court Justice Serafin Cuevas took the offensive like a German blitzkrieg, which caused heavy damage to the House prosecutors’ initial presentation. Even the experienced private prosecutors who were helping the House prosecutors seemed ill equipped in battling the legendary Cuevas. In his cross-examination of the prosecutors’ witnesses, Cuevas assaulted them with a “take no prisoner” stance and at one point declared one witness as “bankrupt.” He was brutally effective in pulverizing the testimony of the witnesses and neutralizing the prosecutors with his courtroom maneuvers… until he met his Waterloo.

An unexpected turn of events happened last February 6 (Day 12 of the trial) when Cuevas cross-examined Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) Commissioner Kim Henares. Henares testified that she found discrepancies in Corona’s Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs) in the years from 2003 to 2010. She gave a detailed breakdown of the discrepancies. For instance, in 2010 – when he was already Chief Justice – Corona declared only P14.5 million in his SALN when in fact he owned P50 million in assets.

Cuevas abruptly moved to have Henares’ testimony stricken from the impeachment trial records, saying that Henares was not an “expert witness.” But the private prosecutor, Arthur Lim, retorted and pointed out that Cuevas had just qualified her to be an “expert witness.” The president officer, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, agreed with Lim and let Henares’ testimony stay. It was only then that the foxy Cuevas realized that Lim had outfoxed him.

Unreported wealth
The stinger came on February 8 (Day 14) when Philippine Savings Bank (PSBank) president Pascual Garcia III testified on five domestic accounts of Corona, which revealed that as of December 31, 2010, Corona’s total peso deposits at PSBank was P19,728,555.39. This did not include Corona’s five dollar accounts, which he claimed couldn’t be disclosed under R.A. 6426, the Foreign Currency Deposit Act.

The following day (Day 15), Leonora Dizon, branch manager of the Bank of Philippine Islands (BPI) presented bank documents that showed that Corona’s checking account had an ending balance of P12,024,067.70 as of December 31, 2010.

Let’s do our math: Between the two banks, Corona’s cash deposits – excluding his secret dollar accounts – total P31,752,623.09. That’s P28,252,623.09 more than the P3.5 million he declared in his 2010 SALN. However, if you add the secret dollar deposit account of $700,000 that Corona allegedly deposited in 2008 at PSBank, then the total unreported amount could be as high as P66 million in 2010. Incidentally, Corona through Cuevas admitted the existence of his dollar accounts; however, he refused to authorize disclosure at this time saying that he’d disclose them in due time. Hmm… do I smell a stinking fish here?

Attack the “enemy”
With this incontrovertible evidence, Corona is faced with a difficult situation. How could he convince the impeachment court — and the court of public opinion – of his innocence? He must have realized then that the impeachment court is an unfriendly territory. He had to find another venue where he could extricate himself out of the quicksand he trapped himself into.

On February 12, on the eve of the Day 15 trial, several members of Corona’s defense team held a press conference where they alleged that an unnamed source gave them “reliable” information that President Benigno Aquino III through Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. attempted to bribe the senator-judges P100 million each to disregard the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) issued by the Supreme Court on the disclosure of Corona’s dollar accounts.

As he attacked the “enemy” using the media, Corona also petitioned the Supreme Court to issue a TRO and void the impeachment proceedings. In an en banc session last February 9, the high court decided to defer issuing a TRO; however, it required the respondents to comment within 10 days.

Last February 13, Corona upped the ante and filed a supplemental petition to reinforce his bid to stop the impeachment trial. He accused five senator-judges of being partial against him. One senator-judge opined that Corona’s strategy in filing the supplemental petition is to open the way for a mistrial.

“Acquittal by TRO”
Evidently, Corona is now taking an unorthodox approach to secure his acquittal, he is playing “catch me if you can” by bringing the Supreme Court into play; that is, each time the prosecution gets closer to pinning him down, he would run to the Supreme Court and ask for a TRO. With at least eight justices – all Arroyo appointees — closely allied with him, he has a good chance of getting a TRO to stop the impeachment proceedings for good.

The question is: Does the Senate impeachment court have the temerity to defy the Supreme Court and proceed with the impeachment trial?
It is interesting to note that before the impeachment trial started last January, Enrile commented during a radio interview. He cautioned both Malacañang and the Supreme Court against meddling in the trial. He said that only God and the people could dictate terms on him and that the only one who could stop the trial is “the might of the military.”

In my opinion, Corona would eventually get his “acquittal by TRO,” thanks to his allies in the Supreme Court. And as expected, Enrile would stand by his word. But he has only one vote. Would the majority of the senator-judges back him up and defy the Supreme Court? Or would they side with Senators Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Joker Arroyo who have repeatedly manifested their beliefs that the Supreme Court is higher than the impeachment court and therefore should prevail?

Last February 14 (Day 17), his 88th birthday, Enrile was asked what he wished for himself on his birthday. He said, “My wish is for God to give me the stamina and divine light to do what is right in the remaining years of my life.”

For someone who had been in both the wrong side and right side of history, how would he want to be remembered as the presiding officer of the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona?