Monthly Archives: May 2012

The unraveling of Chief Justice Renato Coronado Corona

By Romel Regalado Bagares

Whatever public  sympathy Chief Justice Renato Coronado Corona may have won by his unprecedented testimony in his defense at the Senate convened for his impeachment trial  Tuesday, he promptly lost by his tu quoque  plea – and yes, his unceremonious walkout.

Addressing the all-important question of  his dollar accounts, the Chief Justice dramatically signed a waiver  allowing access to all his assets,  only to say in the next breath that he will submit it to the court if and only if the 188 congressmen who  signed the impeachment complaint against him and Senator Franklin Drilon did likewise.

That said, he excused himself, and without waiting for Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile to discharge him from the witness stand, headed for the door, followed by his loyal and faithful servant Midas Marquez and members of his family.

A quick thinking Enrile, though he took about 15 seconds to realize Corona had already left the witness stand and was already out of the session hall, promptly ordered Senate security to seal all exists from the Senate building.

His escape thus blocked, the Chief Justice came back in a wheelchair feigning an episode of hypoglycemia – an all too-familiar play.

It all had the tell-tale marks of a stage-managed performance, captured on television cameras for posterity:

First, in his long-winding speech, he repeatedly referred to himself as a diabetic, as if to prep people on what will happen next.

Second, he read a prepared speech, and he was evidently reading its last line when he uttered, “the Chief Justice of the Republic of the Philippines wishes to be excused” before heading for the door without leave of court.

Third, the cameras showed members of his entourage rising from their seats as if on signal as soon as Corona stepped down from the witness stand, and following him to the door of the session hall.

Fourth, he did not so much as raise a whimper that he was not feeling well. He could have told his lawyers to make the manifestation for him but did not. In fact, cameras caught him in a brief chat with defense counsel Judd Roy as he was on his way out.

Fifth, the speed with which he made for the door belies the claims of someone who was sick.

Sixth, from media reports, it appears that he was intent on leaving the premises of the Senate and only headed for the clinic when he was prevented from taking an elevator on his way out by Senate security personnel.

Evidently he had no plans to submit himself to a cross-examination; his plan all along was to say his piece at the senate and, knowing that his tu quoque – “you too” argument – will not be answered, he will then say he does not anymore expect a fair trial at the senate, and then play the health issue card for good measure.

Brilliant, except that the ploy didn’t work.

For a moment, I thought the moment of truth had come, as he waved for all to see a general waiver allowing access to all his assets; but when he dared Senator Drilon and the members of the House of Representatives who had impeached him to sign a similar waiver, I knew then and there that he did not have any intention to open himself to public accountability.

It was an insult to the Senate impeachment court as much as it was an assault on the bedrock constitutional principle that a public office is a public trust. Public office is not an entitlement that one may wager for one’s personal benefit.

For all his protestations to innocence and personal courage in the face of unjust adversity, he only proved to be a hollow man, bereft of the kind of moral courage befitting the primus inter pares of the Highest Court of the realm.

He does not deserve to remain in office a second longer.

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Filed under Impeachment, Public Interest, Supreme Court

What we’ve learned thus far from the Corona trial

By Romel Regalado Bagares

Thirty seven days into the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Coronado Corona and we witness a bombshell of a testimony whose reverberations are sure to be heard in the corridors of power in this country for years to come.

Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, taking the witness stand Monday at the impeachment trial as a “hostile witness,” revealed that the Chief Justice, who only has a declared net worth of f P22.9 million in his 2010 statement of assets, liabilities and network (SALN), owned 82 bank accounts containing at least USD 12 million in deposits.

As I write, the Ombudsman is again on the witness stand, laying down the shocking details of more than 700 dollar transactions involved in the Chief Justice’s bank accounts with five banks, namely the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI), Philippine Savings Bank (PSBank), Allied Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank.

Her testimony is nothing less than monumental in the history of efforts to enforce accountability to the public of public officers in the Philippines and occasions the following reflections:

An activist Ombudsman. Of course, an individual is not the institution. But it takes a leader with a clear vision and firm resolve to revitalize a moribund institution. In our experience, governmental institutions have often become giant bureaucracies of lethargy, bereft of energy to carry out their constitutional and legal duty to dispense public justice.  For far too long, the Ombudsman has failed to perform its constitutional and legal duty to safeguard the interests of the public against official corruption and malfeasance under the cornerstone principle that “a public office is a public trust.”

The Ombudsman was at its lowest during the long dark reign of the Arroyo administration, where Merceditas Gutierrez transformed the Tanodbayan into a preserve for the protection of her benefactor and all her political allies from public accountability. But the appointment of Conchita Carpio-Morales as Chief Ombudsman has shown that the right person at the helm, an institution can and will work.

The singular importance of an independent Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC). The Chief Ombudsman’s revelations at the Senate impeachment trial of Chief Justice Corona has also placed on the spotlight the AMLC,  one of whose purposes was precisely to serve as an anti-corruption arm of the government. Under the law which created it, the AMLC is composed of the Governor of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) as Chairman and the Commissioner of the Insurance Commission (IC) and the Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as members.

In her testimony, the Ombudsman said that a 17-page document she obtained from the AMLC showed that  Chief Justice Corona kept more than USD $12 million in “fresh deposits” in five banks where he owned 82 dollar account over an eight year-period, from April 2003 to early this year.

All this time, we heard nothing from the AMLC about these accounts purportedly owned by the Chief Justice when under the law, it was its duty to investigate suspicious bank transactions and prosecute those behind it if needed.   Apparently, all it did was make a file of these transactions and put it away – that is, until Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was booted out of power.

The only explanation I can think of for the inexcusable inaction of the AMLC in the case of the bank accounts of the Chief Justice, assuming the Ombudsman’s report is true, is that its members, who were all appointees of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, were simply beholden to their benefactor that they could not lift a finger to touch one of her closest allies, Chief Justice Corona.

The right heads should roll over this long inaction by the people at the AMLC.

The Senate convened as an impeachment trial as democratic discipline.  What we’re witnessing is People Power expressed in the institutional, yes, constitutional way.  There is a time for citizens taking to the streets to demand reforms in government. There is also a time for citizens entrusting to democratic institutions the task of making government work the way it should.

This is the kind of state-building that requires on the part of citizens patient engagement with “slow politics.” This is democratic discipline that cannot be developed overnight. The history of democratic states around the world is one marked by a long struggle for the development of a governmental sphere where the idea of the public interest is supreme.  What we need as a nation is a legislature, an executive and a judiciary no longer captive to private or familial or clan interests. We need to engage our own institutions to develop patient and mature statecraft.

The Supreme Court and the SALN. Our High Court has carved out for itself an exemption to the requirement on public officers to disclose their statement of assets, liabilities and network to the public, making as its primary justification the danger of criminal minds using the disclosure as an occasion to foist on them some imagined blackmail. The impeachment trial of the Chief Justice only underscores the necessity of making all public officers – including the honorable Justices of the Supreme Court – accountable to the public through disclosure of their SALN.  The High Court cannot anymore hide beyond that sorry excuse.

We’re still a long way off, but the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Corona has shown us which way to go.

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This piece first appeared in my weekly column for The News Today.

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Filed under Impeachment, Public Interest, Uncategorized

Celebrity, Privacy, Public Interest, Civility

By Romel Regalado Bagares

It’s been one bloody Sunday indeed and you probably know I’m not referring to the Mayweather-Cotto fight at the MGM Grand Garden (what a ho-hum affair!) but to something that happened right at home. You guessed it right, the One Airport Brawl to shame all other airport brawls, that one between a celebrity couple – Raymart Santiago and Claudine Barretto – and the tough-talking macho journalist Ramon Tulfo.

It’s one where celebrity, privacy claims, public interest questions and civility or the lack of it intersect in a most unlikely way. Let’s try to untangle this sordid mess that has dominated the social media chatter, at least in our part of the world.

Raymart and Claudine say they were demanding an explanation from a Cebu Pacific crew over an improperly off-loaded luggage belonging to their party from Boracay when the journalist entered the picture and took a video of his wife, using a mobile phone.

Raymart claims he gently asked Tulfo, who had planed in from Davao in another flight, what he was doing, and then demanded that the journalist turn over to him the latter’s mobile phone. Raymart, a sometime action movie actor, claims Tulfo invaded their privacy, hence his demand that the latter surrender his mobile phone to him. Instead, he received from the journalist the hard end of the latter’s fist. All hell broke loose because of that.

For his part, Tulfo denies throwing the first punch, claiming the commotion created by the couple at the airport as Claudine berated a hapless airline employee and threatened to have her dismissed by her employers set off his journalistic instincts; after all, in previous columns, he had criticized budget airlines like Cebu Pacific for giving unsuspecting passengers scrambling for cheap tickets the raw end of the deal.

It was all a matter of the public interest about the kind of service budget airlines allow their customers to suffer. And he didn’t take a video of Claudine, he took still photos.

Thus in one fell swoop three public figures found themselves embroiled in a controversy also made uncommon by the fact that one of them, the hard-hitting journalist, is used to sparring with the high and mighty in crime or politics or both but not with a celebrity couple from show business and– as a video of the altercation that has now gone viral apparently shows – some of the couple’s friends.

I thus protest any characterization of this altercation as a trivial one. The brawl is not trivial as it is. It’s the handling of the news about the brawl that could, and had become, trivial.

In fact, regardless of who drew first blood, this clash of claims directs us to key questions about the quality of public life many of us ordinary citizens suffer on a daily basis. It raises questions about the system of societal entitlements that allows celebrities to act like a law unto themselves in public even on the smallest of perceived slights. It requires us to ask ourselves whether we need more of the tough-talking journalism Ramon Tulfo and his kin have become known for in the face of an utterly unresponsive governmental bureaucracy. Too, it brings to the surface the hidden costs to a poorly regulated and wildly expanding low cost airline market headlined by a market leader like Cebu Pacific.

To begin with, celebrities are public figures, whether they like it or not. As a landmark case decided by the Philippine Supreme Court would put it, public figures are people who, by their accomplishments, fame, mode of living, or by adopting a profession or calling which gives the public a legitimate interest in their doings, theirs affairs and their character, have become “public personages.” By being one, the couple has ceded to the public any reasonable expectation of privacy in their doings, especially where one of them heaps verbal abuse on a fellow human being in such a public context as an international airport, whether justified or not.

Besides, there’s this interesting subtext to the act of extreme chivalry on Raymart’s part; only months before, the couple was caught in a very public spat over a conjugal bank account reportedly worth millions of pesos. For a while, it seemed like Raymart and Claudine were on their way to being un-coupled, as their respective lawyers sparred on national media as to who had the rightful entitlement to the money. Now it appears that they have since kissed and made up, as evidenced by their family’s fateful summer trip to Boracay.

Indeed, this backdrop somehow undercuts Raymart’s appeal to privacy: indeed, how can he do that now when he and Claudine have allowed an even more intimate aspect of their married life – a conjugal bank account – to be discussed publicly by their lawyers in the course of one of their conjugal disputes?

Raymart has no right to demand from the journalist that he surrender his mobile phone to him. That would be, in a broad sense, deprivation of private property without due process, besides being a curtailment of a journalist’s right to practice his profession to comment or report on a matter of public interest.

But you don’t have to be a hard-hitting journalist to know that poor customer service from an airline that trumpets its domination of the low cost carrier market in the Philippines – with a 76-percent market share –concerns the public.

A few months back, three Muslim scholars from Basilan on their way to Sudan to study Arabic were abducted by yet unidentified perpetrators at the luggage area of Terminal 3 where the brawl happened. They have not been heard from since then. When human rights activists asked for access to CCTV footage of the area, authorities told us there isn’t any. We had our doubts, but now we know that Terminal 3 indeed lacks a most basic security facility – a CCTV security camera system – at the luggage claim area. And we’re talking here of an international airport!

You also wonder whether the public persona who is Ramon Tulfo could have avoided the fisticuffs if he weren’t being himself. At least for some people, he has become a walking lightning rod for the kind of brute physicality you cannot help imagine while listening to one of his radio programs or while reading one of his newspaper columns. As purveyors of a kind of “brusque journalism,” he and the rest of the Tulfo brood are a success story and make no apology for it. Moreover, under our present circumstances, it is easy to accept that it is exactly the kind of journalism that moves things, that makes things work.

Yet you cannot help asking whether in the long run, it is the kind of journalism with which we wish to build a society where respect and solidarity – in a word, civility – are as important as peace and justice. Still, it might remain the troubling case that for as long as governance in the Philippines is structured only for a privileged few, the hordes of the poor and the downtrodden will always find the kind of journalism Mon Tulfo wears like a badge as their own exemplar.

At the very least, this controversy should be an education for public figures and ordinary citizens alike in what the American philosopher Richard Mouw calls an “uncommon decency.” Such a “convicted civility” is sorely needed in a modernizing society such as ours where, all too often, in the words of the religion scholar Martin Marty, “civil people lack strong convictions and people of strong convictions lack civility.”

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This essay first appeared in my column for the Iloilo City-based The News Today.

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Filed under Celebrity, Civility, Free Expression, Privacy, Public Interest