By: Atty. Ryan L. Tanjutco
The seemingly never ending saga that is the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona is about to come to a historic close. For the first time, an impeachment court was able to complete its proceedings and is ready to render judgment.
Despite their fumbles and miscues, the prosecution has been able to salvage three out of the eight Articles of Impeachment. The centerpiece being Article 2 which alleges that Chief Justice Renato C. Corona culpably violated the Constitution and/or betrayed the public trust by failing to disclose to the public his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth in accordance with Section 17, Article 11 of the 1987 Constitution.
On the part of the defense, Chief Justice Corona directly admitted that he did not disclose his dollar deposits amounting to $2.4 Million because they were confidential under the Foreign Currency Deposits Act. He also claimed that he did not state in his SALN his three other peso accounts amounting to Php 80 Million because these were co-mingled funds and included money from Basa Guidote Enterprises, Inc., a corporation owned by the family of his wife.
Stripped of all its drama, legalese and hyperboles, the main issue that will determine the fate of the Chief Justice is whether he committed an impeachable offense when he did not declare his Dollar deposits and other Peso accounts in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN).
The senator-judges are now faced with the unenviable task of either convicting or acquitting the Chief Justice by considering the applicable laws and the evidence and testimony on record. A judgment of acquittal would mean that they accept hook, line and sinker, the defense theory that a public official is not bound to declare his foreign currency deposit accounts in his SALN due to Section 8 of Republic Act 6426 or the Foreign Currency Deposit Act, which states, to wit:
“All foreign currency deposits authorized under this Act, as amended by PD No. 1035, as well as foreign currency deposits authorized under PD No. 1034, are hereby declared as and considered of an absolutely confidential nature and, except upon the written permission of the depositor, in no instance shall foreign currency deposits be examined, inquired or looked into by any person, government official, bureau or office whether judicial or administrative or legislative, or any other entity whether public or private.”
Such a decision, however, is fraught with disastrous consequences for transparency and accountability as corrupt government officials need to only convert their pesos into foreign currency to avoid declaring their assets in their SALN. Ultimately, it would offer them a haven to escape scrutiny and examination of their ill-gotten wealth. This is not consistent with the spirit and intent of Section 17, Article XI of The 1987 Constitution which declares that “a public officer or employee shall, upon assumption of office and as often thereafter as may be required by law, submit a declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities, and net worth.”
It also renders nugatory the provision of Section 8 of Republic Act 6713 or the “Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees”, which states that “public officials and employees have an obligation to accomplish and submit declarations under oath of, and the public has the right to know, their assets, liabilities, net worth and financial and business interests including those of their spouses and of unmarried children under eighteen (18) years of age living in their households.
It must also be remembered that the confidentiality clause of the RA 6426 is directed only to banks to keep the foreign currency bank accounts of their clients privileged and confidential. It should not be taken to mean and be used as an excuse for a government official to evade his disclosure responsibilities under the law.
It has also been argued that the non-declaration by the Chief Justice of his dollar deposits and other peso account in his SALN does not constitute an impeachable offense, Jurisprudence, however, is replete with cases dismissing government officials for non-declaration of assets in their SALN for lesser reasons than those proferred by the Chief Justice. Thus,
- In the case of Rabe vs. Flores [A.M. No. P-97-1247. May 14, 1997] Interpreter III Delsa M. Flores was dismissed from service with forfeiture of all retirement benefits and accrued leave credits and with prejudice to re-employment in any branch or instrumentality of the government, including government-owned or controlled corporations for merely failing to disclose in her SALN that she was running a stall in the market.
- In the case of Concerned Taxpayer vs. Doblada [A.M. No. P-99-1342. June 8, 2005], Norberto V. Doblada, Jr., Sheriff IV of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Pasig, Branch 155, was accused of having acquired properties during his incumbency as sheriff, the values of which “are manifestly out of proportion to his salary as such public employee and to his other lawful income or incomes from legitimately acquired property. He was found guilty of violating Section 7 of R.A. No. 3019 and Section 8 of R.A. No. 6713 for his failure to declare a true and detailed statement of his assets and liabilities for the years 1974, 1976, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995 and 1998 and was meted out the penalty of dismissal from service pursuant to Section 9(b), R.A. No. 3019 and Section 11, R.A. No. 6713.
- In the case of Flores vs. Montemayor [G.R. No. 170146, August 25, 2010], Atty. Antonio F. Montemayor was a Regional Director II of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), Region IV, in San Fernando, Pampanga. He did not declare his 2001 Ford Expedition in his 2001 SALN and a 1997 Toyota Land Cruiser in his 2001 and 2002 SALN. He was, thus, dismissed from government service for his repeated and consistent failure to reflect truthfully and adequately all his assets and liabilities in his SALN.
Ultimately, the Chief Justice, being the highest magistrate of the land, must be held to a higher standard. Not only must his actions be guided by legal principles but he should be morally upright and be the among the first to uphold transparency and accountability in government. Fittingly, the words of the Supreme Court in a slew of cases are now apropos:
“We have repeatedly held that although every office in the government service is a public trust, no position exacts a greater demand for moral righteousness and uprightness from an individual than in the judiciary. Personnel in the judiciary should conduct themselves in such a manner as to be beyond reproach and suspicion, and free from any appearance of impropriety in their personal behavior, not only in the discharge of their official duties but also in their everyday life. They are strictly mandated to maintain good moral character at all times and to observe irreproachable behavior so as not to outrage public decency.” [Legaspi vs. Garrete, 242 SCRA 679, 701, March 27, 1995 citing Montemayor vs. Collado, Adm. Matter No. 2519-MJ, September 10, 1981, 107 SCRA 258, 264; Association of Court Employees of Panabo, Davao vs. Tupas, Adm. Matter No. RTJ-87-141, July 12, 1989, 175 SCRA 292, 296; Leynes vs. Veloso, Adm. Matter No. 689-MJ and Virrey vs. Veloso, Adm. Matter No. 809-MJ, the two latter cases promulgated on April 13, 1978, 82 SCRA 352, 328.]
Little did the Supreme Court know that these pronouncements would one day apply to one of their esteemed colleagues, none other than the Chief Justice of the Philippines himself. With judgment day close at hand, the Chief Justice of the Philippines can only wish that he be excused.