By Charissa Luci-Atienza, Ben Rosario, and Rey Panaligan
The House Committee on Justice, voting 30 in favor and four against on Wednesday, found the impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Larry Gadon sufficient in form and substance, while dismissing a separate complaint due to flawed verification.
Despite the protest of four congressman, the House panel sided with the Gadon complaint, maintaining that it is a “verified complaint” “based on authentic records.”
“Many of the allegations are based on authentic documents and this was endorsed by lawmakers,” said Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali, chairman of the House Committee on Justice.
Majority Leader and Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas even noted that Supreme Court itself ordered the release of the certified true copy of the 20 documents on allegations against Sereno as contained in the Gadon complaint.
Reacting to the House panel’s decision, Sereno insisted that there is no basis for the impeachment complaint filed against her and should therefore be dismissed outright.
In a statement issued by lawyer Carlo L. Cruz, Sereno said she disagreed with the findings of the House Committee on Justice.
“We respectfully disagree. We will specify the bases of our disagreement in the answer that shall eventually be filed by the Chief Justice. These would include our concern that many of the allegations in the complaints are unsupported by evidence or rely mainly on hearsay consisting of newspaper clippings,” Cruz, described as a constitutionalist and a known authority on Philippine Administrative Law and Law of Public Officers, said in a statement.
Cruz, a veteran lawyer and son for the late SC Associate Justice Isagani Cruz, pointed out that the House committee’s finding of sufficiency in form and substance “appears to be inconsistent with its findings and actions in similar proceedings in the past.”
He stressed that “contrary to the findings of the House Committee on Justice, none of the allegations in the complaints is true, and for this reason, we respectfully submit that the complaints cannot be considered sufficient in both form and substance.”
“Chief Justice Sereno has always lived a modest, God-fearing lifestyle. She has followed her oath of office and conducted herself with strict faithfulness to that oath. She has been among the foremost proponents of establishing a culture of modesty and respect for public funds in the Supreme Court. She has instituted reforms in the judiciary and has asserted and defended the independence of the judicial branch of government,” said Cruz, who graduated cum laude from the San Beda College of Law.
Cruz said “the complaints against Chief Justice Sereno seem designed to maximize the political spectacle, with the goal of eroding her credibility through innuendo and malicious allegations.”
“This is detrimental to the independence of the judiciary upon whom all citizens rely to defend their rights and to check any abuse,” he said.
Cruz said that Sereno “will avail herself of appropriate legal remedies, with the hope that the mechanisms of our democratic system will afford her a fair, transparent and just opportunity to be heard.”
Before the 30-4 voting, Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate, Dinagat Island Rep. Kaka Bag-ao, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, and Akbayan paty-list Rep. Tom Villarin said the complaint is insufficient in form, citing that the allegations are “based on newspaper clippings” and are “mere hearsay.”
“As to the form, I think the impeachment complaint is already defective,” Zarate said. “These are hearsay. These proceedings should not be used as a fishing expedition,” he said.
Bag-ao, a lawyer, said she objected on the complaint based on form, explaining that 11 allegations in the complaint are based on attached newspaper clippings. She even asked how Gadon was able to come up with his complaint on August 2 based on the documents released by the SC on August 15.
For his part, Lagman said some of the allegations contained in the Gadon complaint are matters “pending deliberation and determination” by the SC.
Villarin said the impeachment complaint should be supported by evidence and not bare allegations of news reports. “If we go by our rules, these are all mere hearsay evidence,” he said.
After declaring the complaint sufficient in form, the House panel tackled and put to vote whether the ouster petition is sufficient in substance. It was Kabayan party-list Rep. Harry Roque who moved to declare the complaint sufficient in substance.
The voting remains 30-4, with Lagman’s group declaring the Gadon complaint sufficient in substance.
Bag-ao and Zarate said the complainant accused Sereno of committing culpable violation of the Constitution, but Gadon failed to mention the constitutional provisions which were violated.
Gadon claimed that Sereno did not declare in her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) the “exorbitant lawyer’s fees” of $745,000 or about P37 million which she received from the Philippine government.
On alleged corruption, the complaint stated that the Chief Justice allegedly used public funds to finance her extravagant and lavish lifestyle by ordering the purchase of a brand-new luxurious Toyota Land Cruiser 2017 model as her personal vehicle amounting to more than P5 million and for staying in luxurious hotels when attending conferences in the country and abroad.
On acts reportedly constituting high crimes, Gadon’s complaint alleged that, among other things, Sereno obstructed justice by ordering the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court judges not to issue warrants of arrest against Senator Leila de Lima.
The complaint also stated that Sereno hired an Information Technology consultant with an excessive compensation without public bidding; sent a strongly-worded but misplaced reply to President Duterte on the judges linked to drugs thereby inviting a head-on collision between the presidency and the judiciary; and prevented the Court of Appeals justices from paying courtesy calls on the President.
In an interview, Gadon said he was “elated” by the panel voting. “This is how democracy works. The dismissal of the second complaint does not affect the complaint against Chief Justice Sereno. My complaint is more complete,” he said.
During the second round of voting, the Umali panel junked the impeachment complaint filed by Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) founding chairman and president Dante Jimenez and Philippine Constitution, Inc. lawyer Eligio Mallari due to flawed verification.
Iloilo Rep. Arthur Defensor moved to declare the complaint sufficient in form, saying that “it has honest and accurate verification.”
But, Bag-ao, Zarate, Lagman and Villarin opposed the motion, citing that the complaint has “improper verification” and Jimenez and Mallari do not have personal knowledge on the allegations.
“It is not a verified complaint. We are not dealing with a verified complaint,” Bag-ao said.
Fariñas agreed with the four oppositors, saying the verification of the Jimenez-Mallari complaint was flawed.
“I joined them in their objection. All complainants are warned that they should follow the proper form,” he said.
“Mali ang verification na ginamit nyo,” he said, addressing the complainants. “This form applies if the complainants constitute 1/3 of the House,” Fariñas said.
Voting 28-5, the Umali panel junked the complaint filed by Jimenez and Mallari.
Umali said Sereno will be given 10 days to respond to the impeachment filed by Gadon. “That would be more than a week from now,” he said.
Whether or not Sereno files her answer to the complaint, the Umali panel is expected to determine if there is probable cause to impeach her.
Deputy Minority Leader and ABS Party-list Rep. Eugene De Vera and AKO Bicol Party-list Rep. Alfredo Garbin defended the committee decision to junk the a second impeachment complaint filed by Jimenez and Mallari, saying it can no longer be refilled within the one-year ban imposed against filing of similar complaint against Sereno.
Six Justices to testify
Meanwhile, up to six incumbent Supreme Court (SC) Justices are willing to testify against Sereno for the sake of “saving” the judiciary, Gadon said on Wednesday.
“Lately, I received a message from a very reliable person who is also my friend who told me that there are three more Justices who are willing to testify voluntarily even if they are not invited [by the House Justice Committee],” Gadon told reporters in a chance interview.
The Duterte administration supporter gave the statement just minutes after the Justice panel declared his impeachment complaint against Sereno sufficient in form and in substance.
Last month, Gadon revealed that “two-to-three” Justices sent him feelers regarding their willingness to testify against Sereno “if they will be invited by the House Committee on Justice.”
He said this brings the total number of potential magistrate-witnesses to six. “Mga active yan (They are all active Justices).”
“According to them they want to save the [Supreme] Court and the Judiciary from what I’ve been complaining on,” said Gadon, president of the PDU30 Constitutional Reform to Federalism movement. (With a report from Ellson A. Quismorio)