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The Corona impeachment – righting an old wrong

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THE LEGAL FRONT

By JUSTICE ART D. BRION (RET.)

J. Art D. Brion (RET.)

J. Art D. Brion (RET.)

With the elections over and the political (and even the judicial) personalities significantly changed, the time has come perhaps to look at old issues that had no hope of fair and equitable resolution under the old political regime.

I refer in particular to the case and the justice due to the late Chief Justice Renato Corona who in 2012 was railroaded into impeachment by the Aquino administration.

The late chief justice, unfortunately for him, was an appointee of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo whom the Aquino administration wanted to remove from the political scene; she was removed by detaining her on unfounded graft charges for four long years.

The chief justice, again unfortunately for him, was the leader of the court when the land reform case of Hacienda Luisita – the crown jewel of the Cojuangco properties – came before the Supreme Court.  True to his oath, the late chief justice refused to be cowed and the court itself did not bow to the President in deciding the case.

The Aquino administration also lost its first major case before the court, the Truth Commission case – a development that the administration must have read as an indicator of how the court under the late Chief Justice would decide.

Towards the last quarter of 2011, consistent reports of moves against the late chief justice began circulating. An indicator was the manner the president frontally shamed him in an executive-judiciary affair at the Manila Hotel; the affront left the audience wondering what was afoot.

Out of respect for the president and as a gentleman should, the chief justice bore the frontal assault with stoic equanimity.

In early December, 2011, the impeachment complaint was filed; word filtered out that some had refused to sign because they were denied the chance to read the complaint.

The evidence the chief justice faced during the impeachment trial were interestingly secured under bizarre circumstances, as exemplified by the manner his alleged bank accounts reached the impeachment court.

One source was a congressman who was also an impeachment prosecutor; he admitted that his information came from a “small lady” whose name he had forgotten. Another congressman who gave the Corona bank account information to the prosecution panel claimed that he found it in an envelope left at the gate of his residence.

No less than the Central Bank’s Anti-Money Laundering Council joined the act by disclosing confidential information on the chief justice’s dollar holdings and transactions.

According to the Ombudsman’s testimony, the chief justice’s holdings amounted to $12 million. She, together with the COA, arrived at this amount by adding the chief justice’s transactions – the credits and the debits that over 9 years added up to $12 million. The real base amount though was only the $2-million accumulated deposit that the Chief Justice had earned and saved during his private sector law practice years.

The prosecution also sought to hold the chief justice liable for his peso savings – the proceeds of sales of long-held and inherited properties and the accumulated Corona family income pooled together for their greater bank interest yield.  Allegations of properties in Corona’s name – provided by the Land Registration Commission – turned out to be duds.

But the patent injustice against the late chief justice came to light only after he had been impeached.

Senator Jinggoy Estrada, when accused of PDAF illegalities in 2014, professed innocence and claimed it was the president who should be investigated as he had used pork barrel funds to bribe the senators in 2012 in his campaign to impeach the late chief justice.

This disclosure brought to light the DAP funds that were unknown to the public until Budget Secretary Florencio Abad admitted their existence. The Court later confirmed that the DAP funds came from slow-moving projects that the administration prematurely converted into savings for use by the President to fund his chosen projects. These funds were separate from the Executive Branch funds unconstitutionally transferred and used for non-Executive Branch projects.

Aside from Senator Jinggoy, Senator Revilla likewise disclosed in his own privilege speech that he was summoned and surreptitiously brought to the Palace by Senator Mar Roxas during the impeachment hearing. There, the president asked him in the presence of Secretary Abad to vote for the impeachment of the late chief justice.

These developments gave rise to the DAP cases that were filed with the Supreme Court to question the Executive’s use of DAP funds.  The records showed that vast amounts of DAP funds were distributed by the Palace to the Senators before, during, and after the impeachment hearings.

The distributed DAP funds during and after the hearings alone amounted to P2.043 billion. Senators Jinggoy and Revilla each received P100 million from this distribution.

The Supreme Court, after submissions and oral arguments, found the use of the DAP funds unconstitutional, in the same way that it had previously found the disbursement and use of PDAF funds unconstitutional.  These rulings became the basis for complaints filed before the Ombudsman to hold those responsible for the DAP liable for their actions.

President Aquino, while a sitting president, was excluded from the DAP-based cases because of his immunity from suit (a situation that is no longer true now). Other officials, particularly former Budget Secretary Abad, were given a slapo the wrist: he was only held liable for usurpation of legislative functions, an administrative offense punishable by a fine for those who are no longer in office.

Senators Ponce Enrile and Estrada lost in the last election; only Senator Revilla now appears to be winning. (All three are out on bail on PDAF-related charges.) Senator Mar Roxas and Secretary Abad also lost their election bids. Thus, the Corona impeachment’s main dramatis personae are now mostly out of government.

The late chief justice mercifully died 3 years ago, carrying his underserved impeachment taint to the grave.

This is the injustice our newly elected national officials shall soon face. Unless they act, the injustice done to the chief justice shall forever serve as a towering monument of how the misdeeds of the Aquino administration triumphed.

The Chief Justice left the judiciary without the benefit of any retirement pay, not even payment for the leave credits he had accumulated during his long years in government. His family continues to be denied the retirement benefits that deceased members of the judiciary can leave to their families.

Congress can remedy this situation if it wants to, not by resurrecting the dead and buried impeachment case, but by legislating a financial grant that is within its authority to give – funds for the judiciary to pay the equivalent of the retirement pay and the benefits the late Chief Justice would have left behind.

The SC, on a proper petition filed, can likewise belatedly address the injustice done to their former chief through an equitable remedy – the grant of the equivalent of the retirement pay and benefits the chief justice and his family would have received had he not been unjustly impeached. This grant will of course be funded through the budget approved by Congress.

Join me in wishing that justice shall soon be done.

jadb.legalfront.mb@gmail.com   

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