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Reflections on a historic verdict

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I have never been more relieved to be wrong than when I predicted at the onset of the Senate Impeachment Trial that the Senate would acquit Chief Justice Renato Corona. Serve me a plate of crow and I will chow it down with relish.

I had expected that at least eight of the senators (Joker Arroyo,  Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Manny Villar, “Bong” Revilla, Jr., Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, and Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan) would side with Corona which would have been sufficient to exonerate him. I was certain of the first three on my list but I believed the other 5 would follow suit. [Actually, according to the post-verdict interviews, they would have until Corona testified and committed hara-kiri right in front of them.]

In his testimony, Corona accused his critics of lying about him. He did not fail to disclose $12 million tucked away in his confidential dollar bank deposits, he only failed to disclose $2.4 million, he said under oath. He only failed to pay taxes on $2.4 million, not $12 million. He should have added “Ooops.”

Of all the senators who expressed their reasons for voting for or against Corona, the most revealing remarks came from Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago who scolded those of her colleagues who would vote that Corona was a crook since that would imply that they were saints. But how could that be, she asked rhetorically, when the Philippines has consistently been ranked as the most corrupt country in the world.

The great writer, F. Sionil Jose, pondered Santiago’s question. “Perhaps, without being quite conscious of it, by her acquittal of Corona, she answered her own question,” he wrote. “We have reached this state of apparent moral metastasis because leaders like her, and there are so many of them in and out of Congress, are hobbled by their tremendous self-esteem, their encyclopedic legal knowledge, they forget that that the basis of law is moral.”

It was as if Sen. Santiago was worried that outside observers may not know how to judge the Philippines if a high government official were actually removed for corruption. These only happen in First World countries or in those with reputations for integrity in their institutions.

At one point in her 20 minute obloquy, she blurted out “I was hoping with all my heart that God would strike me dead!” Why? So that she would not have to bear witness to the hypocrisy of the House prosecutors and her pious senate colleagues.  It was as if she was asking her fellow senate-jurors: “Is there no honor among thieves?” Apparently, there is.

Sen. Santiago reminded her colleagues that she was the only one among them who had ever served as a regional trial court judge and that she would soon be seated as judge in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Perhaps not.

Last February, after Sen. Santiago famously berated and insulted the House prosecutors as “mga gago!” (morons!), I was so offended by her behavior that I initiated an online petition to the ICC to reconsider and reject her election as an ICC judge. In three months, the on line petition drew 1,600 signatories from all over the world – including from virtually every city in Saudi Arabia. In the week since Sen. Santiago announced her vote supporting Corona, the list zoomed to 4,200 signatories.

When Sen. Santiago was asked in a radio interview to comment on the online petition to the ICC, she said that she was not worried about it at all because there is no procedure in the ICC to remove an ICC judge.

Perhaps not, but then again the ICC has never had to deal with a judge who, as described in the online petition, is “emotionally and psychologically unstable, prone to fits of uncontrollable rage, lacking in patience and empathy, ruthless with the feelings of fellow human beings, bereft of civility and uncaring about decorum.” A new procedure – perhaps called the “Miriam Exception” – will just have to be established by the ICC.

While I was off in my prediction of the final vote of the senate jurors, I did correctly predict in an August 15, 2010 column that the Statement of Assets Liabilities and Networth law would become a major weapon against corruption.

In that article, I recalled the September 3, 2009 TV interview of then Pampanga Rep. Mikey Arroyo (GMA’s son) by TV commentator Winnie Monsod who asked him to explain how his SALN could show a net worth of P5 million ($100,000) in 2002 and P99 million ($2.2M) in 2008. Mikey’s response: “You know, first of all, I got married. I received lots of gifts. Then in the election campaign, somehow, many people helped me.”

In that TV interview, Mikey reluctantly acknowledged that he partly owned the property at 1655 Beach Park Boulevard in Foster City in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. Although the $1.32 million residential property was listed in San Mateo County records in 2009 as owned by his wife, Angela Montenegro Macapagal, it was not listed in the 2008 and 2009 SALNs of Mikey Arroyo. Despite his admission, Mikey still asserted that there was no proof that he violated the SALN law.

Winnie responded: “You know what, the law is very clear. If there is a problem when there is a question of unexplained wealth here, the burden of proof is with you, with the government employee. It can’t be that we have to prove that you are guilty. No, the government employee should prove that he is innocent. That’s precisely the whole objective of having a statement of assets and liabilities.”

CJ Corona tried to explain his accumulation of $2.4 million in unreported assets by asserting that he had been dabbling in dollar trading (an admission of “black market” illegality right there) since he was a kid when the peso-dollar ratio was 2 pesos to a dollar. So when it shot up to 44 pesos to a dollar, he made a killing. This “palusot” just did not fly as a dollar does not multiply by 44 times when the exchange rate changes.

“After 50 years, the SALN law may be on life support but it isn’t dead yet”, I wrote then. It’s not on life support now. It came back to life in a monumental way and claimed the career of the Chief Justice.

Let’s all savor this historic moment in Philippine history and be inspired by it. Let’s hope it sadly disappoints those who believe the Philippines will never be rid of its twin cultures of corruption and impunity.

(Send your comments to Rodel50@gmail.com or mail them to the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94127 or call 415.334.7800).

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