Quo vadis, Corona?

Quo vadis, Corona?

When the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona went into a six-week recess in observance of Lent, a lot of people were saying that it seemed that the prosecution would have a hard time piercing the Corona defense with the seemingly weak evidence that they presented. Some of Corona’s rah rah boys jubilantly declared that the prosecution’s case had been blown to pieces.

Indeed, Corona used the Holy Week to his advantage. He compared himself to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Like Jesus Christ, he said he was a victim of injustice and persecution. He seemed to have garnered some sympathy from the public. Yep, “tapos na ang boksing” (the boxing match is over), the Coronistas gloated!

But before the impeachment trial resumed on May 7, something unexpected happened that was about to change the course of the Senate impeachment trial.
Last April 23, 2012, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales – acting on several complaints filed before her office – served an order to Corona to explain allegations that he has at least $10 million in bank accounts. Carpio-Morales gave Corona 72 hours to explain in writing how he accumulated wealth, which was “grossly disproportionate to his salary and other lawful income.”

Full of holes
When the impeachment trial resumed last May 7, the defense team presented three witnesses in an attempt to prove ownership of the Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc. (BGEI); thus, justifying Corona’s non-inclusion in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) of the P34.7 million proceeds from the sale of a BGEI property to the City of Manila in 2001.

But former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza couldn’t give a straight answer why the P34.7-million check was made to “Cristina Corona in trust for BGEI” instead of just “BGEI.” The House prosecutor presented conflicting documentation on the disbursement of the check, which showed that the check should have been disbursed to “BGEI.” Seemingly sensing a “red flag,” Atienza disavowed any responsibility for the disbursement saying that the City Treasurer did it on his own.

The next day, May 8, Lucita Masangkay-Cristi, clerk of court of Regional Trial Court Branch 216, testified that Cristina Roco Corona (wife of Renato Corona) won in two libel cases filed against her uncle, Jose Maria Basa III, and other relatives in 2001. The court awarded her P500,000 in damages from the defendants. On April 28, 2003, the court issued a writ of execution against the defendants of whom Basa owned more than 90.7% of the shares of the BGEI stocks. At this point the prosecutor disclosed that Basa died on August 29, 2002 and asserted that the writ of execution couldn’t be enforced against the deceased. However, the Sheriff nevertheless enforced the writ of execution.

Sham auction?
Sheriff Joseph Bisnar testified that it was he who enforced the writ of execution in a public auction on Sept. 30, 2003. But it was far from being “public” because the auction was not advertised in newspapers, as should have been the case. All he did was post a notice on the bulletin board in the Sheriff’s office… on the day of the auction!

It did not then come as a surprise when there was only one bidder who showed up at the public auction. But what was more surprising was that the lone bidder was Carla Corona Castillo, daughter of complainant Cristina Roco Corona, the wife Renato Corona. Did it surprise anyone that Carla submitted a low bid of P28,000, which was far below the judgment amount of P500,000?

In my opinion, this was a very unusual and anomalous auction. What Sheriff Bisnar should have done was impose a “reserve,” which would have set a minimum bid.

Without a reserve, the Sheriff was obligated to award the property to the sole bidder, Carla Corona Castillo for whatever bid amount she submitted.

But the strangest thing that happened was that Carla handed the money directly to Cristina without passing it through to Bisnar, which was standard procedure.

When asked if he saw the P28,000 cash, Bisnar said he did not because it was inside an envelope. Heck, it could have been only P1 or P10 and nobody would have known it. And when Sen. Franklin Drilon asked Bisnar if he received his four percent Sheriff’s fee, he said, “No.”

So, for a measly sum of P28,000, Carla bought 90.7% of the shares of BGEI stocks with a par value of P453,500 and P34.7 million liquid assets from the sale of the BGEI property in 2001, which was deposited and co-mingled in Cristina’s personal bank account!

Risky bluff
After the testimony of the witnesses, defense lawyer Jose Roy III announced that Corona would testify if the $10 million allegation was brought before the Senate impeachment trial; provided, however, that the Ombudsman and the complainants would be subpoenaed to testify under oath. Roy said, “I would like to put on record now, that once these witnesses have put on record what they have to state under oath, we will present evidence to contradict, deny and rebut them through the testimony of the Chief Justice.”

Was Roy bluffing? If so, it was a risky bluff. Presiding Officer and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile called his “bluff” and agreed to subpoena the “hostile” witnesses.

On May 14, Ombudsman Carpio-Morales testified before the impeachment trial. Carpio-Morales provided documentation that Corona had 82 dollar deposit accounts in nine bank branches in Metro Manila. She also produced a 17-page detailed report and a four-page summary report, which were prepared by the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC).

In my article, “It’s time for Corona to face the music” (March 22, 2012), I wrote: “Under the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2001 (Republic Act 9160), banks and similar institutions are required to report to AMLC within five working days any ‘suspicious transaction’ – or ‘covered transaction’ — that exceeds P500,000 within one banking day. Under RA 9160, ‘money laundering’ is defined as: ‘A crime whereby the proceeds of an unlawful activity are transacted or attempted to be transacted to make them appear to have originated from legitimate sources.’ ”

The AMLC report showed 705 transactions reported by banks to AMLC in compliance with the above provision of RA 9160. The Ombudsman requested the Commission on Audit (COA) to perform an audit of the report, which showed an inflow (deposits) of more than $28 million and an outflow (withdrawals) of more than $30 million. In addition to the dollar accounts, Corona had peso accounts, which showed movement of money totaling more than P242 million.

In addition to the movement of money, Carpio-Morales said that Corona had “fresh deposits” totaling $12 million. A deposit is called “fresh” if it was deposited into an account and remained in that account and never taken out (no movement).

After Carpio-Morales’ damning testimony, prosecution team leader Rep. Niel Tupas Jr. characterized the pattern of the movement of money like “professional money laundering.” “We knew on the very beginning there were bank accounts, we did not imagine in our wildest dreams it would be this big and this many,” Tupas told the media.

Quo vadis, Corona?
But Corona told the media that Carpio-Morales’ testimony was “malicious” and a “lantern of lies.” He also said that the data were a “hoax.” He urged her to resign from her position once he’s proven her wrong. He vowed to debunk the figures presented by Carpio-Morales. He declared, “Tuloy ang laban!” (The fight continues!) The question is: How is Corona going to explain to the satisfaction of the senator-judges how he amassed such wealth considering that he only declared a net worth of P3.5 million in his 2010 SALN? And if he couldn’t give the senator-judges a straight answer, then what?