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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1 Comment

Filed under Impeachment, Public Interest, Uncategorized

One response to “What we’ve learned thus far from the Corona trial

  1. hi rommel,
    perhaps one can add that there is a disconnect between the 1987 constitution and the bank secrecy statutes, at least insofar as public officials are concerned. i think this means the SC will have to decide, at some point, the constitutionality of the bank secrecy statutes, and perhaps also the limits on the investigatory powers of the Ombudsman.

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