And so the impeachment trial of the Chief Justice Renato Coronado Corona had finally reached its end earlier. Both sides of the prosecution and the defense delivered their closing arguments with tons of thoughts and legal provisions for the Senator-Judges to ponder on before they render their verdict tomorrow.
Five months had past since the trial started on the anniversary of the abrupt end of the impeachment trial of then President Estrada in 2001. Those five months have been filled with revelations of wrong-doing and machinations flung by both the prosecution panel and the defense lawyers. And once in a while, men and women of the Aquino administration also took pot shots at the embattled Chief Justice who has become their bosses’ sworn enemy.
But all the hullaballoo and mud-slinging would be forgotten when the accussed Chief Justice took the stand last Tuesday. And while he took the stand to put all doubts against him to rest, his arguments have bothered me much.
When asked about why he did not declare his dollar accounts in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net worth (SALN), he reasoned that his accounts are protected by the theForeign Currency Deposits Act – a law which goes back to the Marcos years. Corona’s defense had always been that the law provides for the confidentiality of foreign currency accounts.
Earlier, House Prosecution panel member, Representative Rodolfo Fariñas debunked several of the Chief Justice’s statements saying that they were all excuses or palusot. And Fariñas did not mince words on why the Corona should be removed from his position by the representatives of the people. Of course, how the trial ends would depend on how the Senators will vote tomorrow. And that is something very much difficult to anticipate given how heterogenous the Senate is.
But beyond the verdict what has troubled me since Corona took the stand was how he used the provisions of law to skirt the requirement set by the Constitution against graft and corruption. The Constitution provides that
Public office is a public trust. Public officers and employees must, at all times, be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency; act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives. (Art XI, Sec.1)
“Accountable to the people; integrity; lead modest lives” – these are important principles enshrined in the Constitution which must be upheld, over and above the provision of the FCDA invoked by Corona to hide his dubious dollar accounts.
I am a government employee myself and I am required by law to annually fill out a SALN form. And to ensure that there would be no doubts about my lifestyle when compared with my net worth, I declare everything I own or owe in the form. The same is true for my officemates who mostly also subsist from what little pay the government gives us.
If Corona had been more conscious that he was working in a public office, he would have declared his dollar accounts in his SALN long before an impeachment complaint had been filed against him. A full disclosure of his assets, liabilities and net worth would have put all doubts on his sources of income at ease. Then again, having those dollar accounts with huge amounts would make people start asking questions. And it would still boil down to him being asked to account for those millions of dollars.
The presumption in government service is this: If a government employee has assets or a lifestyle clearly beyond the capacity that the employee can acquire out of the employee’s pay, then there must be other undeclared sources of income. And Corona’s lifestyle was the reason why he got flagged down.
It bothers me that the highest magistrate of the land would rationalize himself before the representatives of the people with a mere technicality of the law – taking refuge in a lacuna which is the result of the shifting of principles in governance from one administration to the other.
Corona’s line of reasoning is not only suspect but it also introduces a dangerous idea for the unscrupulous characters in government service. Not only has the highest magistrate shown public officers that they can ignore Constitutional provisions and hide behind laws, he has also illustrated how they can hide dubious money in dollar accounts.
With this illustration from Corona, it would not be difficult then to imagine politicians, cabinet secretaries and even mere regional directors out to enrich themselves, opening dollar accounts to siphon money from sources other than their pay to their own protected pockets. And should this mentality spread in government service, it would not be difficult to see more public employees becoming like Corona.
On my part, maybe I should start buying dollars and later open a dollar account. Thanks for the idea Mr. Chief Justice!