MANILA, Philippines - The camp of Chief Justice Renato Corona will protest the move of the prosecution to include the income tax returns of the chief magistrate and his family as evidence in the impeachment trial, a defense lawyer said yesterday.
Tranquil Salvador III said the defense panel will also question the presentation of Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) Commissioner Kim Henares as witness in the impeachment court.
“They cannot do that. It is irrelevant to the case,” Salvador said.
He said they would challenge the prosecution if and when they present Henares to the impeachment court.
Salvador argued that the release of the income tax return of any individual needs the approval of President Aquino who has been advocating the removal of Corona from office.
Aquino also heads the ruling Liberal Party, whose camp has been vocal about the impeachment of Corona.
Salvador admitted that they were saddened by the prosecution’s move to link the issue of Corona’s alleged illegally acquired wealth to the non-disclosure of the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) as discussed in Article 2 of the eight articles of impeachment.
“That’s still a dispute. We are bit saddened by this... this (process) should have been completed before the House committee of justice and determined on the outset,” he said.
Echoing the statement of a fellow counsel that the prosecution is on a fishing expedition, Salvador lamented the “investigation has become contemporaneous with the trial.”
No less that chief defense counsel Serafin Cuevas had manifested the need for his client to avail himself of a preliminary hearing prior to the actual trial.
Cuevas argued Corona was deprived of due process and his right to be heard when 188 congressmen signed the impeachment complaint and hastily filed it before the Senate last December.
But Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and the body had decided against Corona’s move for a preliminary hearing since it was not in the rules, and that the Senate, once convened as an impeachment body, should “forthwith proceed” with the trial.
Salvador said even the hands of the 23 senator-judges were tied down by the rules.
Nonetheless, Salvador said they will fight to “protect the interest of our client.”
He added the defense will possibly object or approve the offer to present the income tax returns of the chief justice and members of his family this week, which would depend “on the purpose of how they (prosecution) will present them.”
“They want the people to make the conclusions on these, presenting to the public the chief justice’s SALN and his income tax return. And say, why is this so small? And yet he got the (alleged) properties,” Salvador said.
Salvador said they would definitely oppose the presentation of Henares as a witness.
He made the statement after the prosecution panel revealed last week that they will continue to prove that Corona enriched himself in office.
Lead House prosecutor Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr. said the prosecution panel will present Henares to bolster their allegations that Corona’s income is not enough for him to be able to acquire multimillion-peso properties. Henares went to the Senate last Wednesday but was directed to return this week on the continuation of the trial.
Instead, the prosecution presented three land registrars to the witness stand to prove that Corona and his wife, Cristina, had more than the properties listed in their joint SALN.
Tupas said the prosecution is focusing on how Corona betrayed public trust in relation to his non-disclosure of SALN.
“Plunder is technical, it is a series of acts. We are proving betrayal of public trust, that is where we are focusing,” he said.
Despite the presentation of voluminous SALN documents, condominium titles, and deeds of sale, the defense camp is moving to discredit all evidence pinning down Corona over his alleged illegally acquired wealth.
Cuevas has been arguing the issue of ill-gotten wealth is not covered by Article 2 of the articles of impeachment on Corona.
He said the accusations of non-disclosure of SALN were based on mere speculation, not on “ultimate facts.”
The issue of inhibition
Corona’s lawyers, however, are wary on moves to have some of the senator-judges inhibit from the trial.
Salvador said there is no need to since Corona remains strong and steadfast in the belief that he can withstand this latest challenge in his judicial career.
Asked how he thinks Corona is taking the trial, Salvador said the chief justice “can stand for himself” even in the middle of the prosecution’s attempt to include his family in the impeachment trial.
“As it stands now, they believe that he didn’t do anything (wrong)... Apart from the chief justice, the more that the judiciary should be protected here not just for now but (for the benefit) of the coming generations,” he said.
“Whatever the impact there is on our lives. It will have impact on us as a nation. It’s not about keeping him (Corona) in office, it is also about protecting the judiciary, for anyone who sits there,” Salvador added.
Cuevas said the defense team is weighing the possible outcome or consequences if they move for the inhibition of some senator-judges.
“We are still studying it. This is a sensitive concern because we are appearing before a court with 23 judges, unlike in a (regular) court with only one judge,” he said.
“What would be the price of an act of hostility against them? I am not saying that that is possible but that is equally discernable because we are only human. They would not like it and definitely it might do something bad for us too,” he said.
The issue of inhibition cropped up when Sen. Franklin Drilon, for two consecutive days, seemed to have saved the day for the prosecution panel, initially when he was able to elicit information from SC clerk of court Enriquetta Vidal that she brought with her Corona’s SALN.
This prompted the body to let her surrender it to the court.
A national organization of judges, however, reminded the senators of their mandate to be impartial while sitting as judges in the impeachment trial.
The Metropolitan and City Judges Association of the Philippines (MetCJAP) appealed to the senators to shun political affiliations and even public opinion when they cast their votes on the guilt or acquittal of the embattled chief magistrate over the eight articles of impeachment.
“As senator-judges, they owe it to the people not only to be impartial, independent and honest but they should be perceived to be impartial, independent and honest as well,” MetCJAP president and Cagayan de Oro City Judge Cesar Merlas said in a statement.
Election lawyer Romulo Macalintal, an independent analyst in the impeachment case, echoed this appeal.
He said the senators should not cast their vote in “a robotic manner” dictated by their political affiliations, but instead base their decision on evidence and rules.
Citing the separate opinion of retired Chief Justice Reynato Puno in a case involving the canvass of votes in the 2004 election of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Macalintal likened the function of senators in an impeachment trial to their function when sitting as National Board of Canvassers during presidential polls.
Macalintal said the senators, in sitting as impeachment jurors, are “not meeting as a lawmaking body” and therefore required to discharge their function “with fairness and impartiality” to come up with an “informed and intelligent judgment.”
Quoting Puno, Macalintal said the senator-judges “should keep their eyes open but should shut them off to any political light.”
“Thus, paraphrasing the scholarly views of Puno, our senators-judges are called upon to exercise their discretion with fairness and impartiality to the end that an intelligent judgment is arrived at with full assurances that the constitutional rights of the impeached official are observed and protected. For these constitutional rights are not suspended during the impeachment trial,” he said.
The MetCJAP and Macalintal made the appeal after four days of hearings in the impeachment court last week.
Observers had criticized Drilon for supposedly aiding the prosecutors in advancing their case.
Several quarters have already reportedly called for his inhibition with former senator Francisco Tatad, who was observing the proceedings, calling the senator as “Prosecutor Drilon.”
“While the perceived partiality of Senator-Judge Drilon may not be entirely without basis, I believe that as man of the law he will do what is fair and just,” the MetCJAP said.
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) already made the same appeal for impartiality of senators before the trial started last week.
“Even more empathic is the solemn oath taken by the senator-judges in hearing the case of Chief Justice Corona - ‘to do impartial justice according to the Constitution and the law of the Philippines.’ And an impartial justice can only be based on facts and evidence and not on personal sentiments or swings of public opinion,” the IBP said in a statement. - With Edu Punay - By Christina Mendez