Any public servant is answerable to some boss or state instrumentality. People are asking if, going by Renato Corona’s words and deeds, a Chief Justice is accountable to no one.
Last week the Ombudsman queried Corona about three complaints of hidden wealth totaling $10 million (P425 million). Through counsel he replied that the Ombudsman has no authority over him since he is an impeachable officer. The Constitution and enabling laws define the anti-graft agency’s powers. It can investigate any public official, for criminal indictment or in aid of congressional impeachment. The first is punishable by imprisonment and/or fine, the second by mere dismissal and perpetual bar from public office. But then, the Supreme Court headed by a Chief Justice is the final arbiter of constitutionality and legality.
As an impeachable officer, does Corona accept the impeachment process? Pending with SC colleagues is his plea to quash, for being hasty, three remaining impeachment raps against him. The raps were signed by 188 congressmen, double the one-third of House members obliged by the Constitution to send a complaint forthwith to the Senate for trial. Corona’s petition to the SC includes the halting of the Senate hearings.
Is a CJ exempt from coverage by constitutional commissions and independent inter-agency bodies? One of eight original counts against Corona, dropped to shorten the trial, was for non-accounting of the multibillion-peso Judicial Development Fund and the Special Allowance for the Judiciary. The Constitution requires all government branches to submit to scrutiny by the Commission on Audit.
Corona has wangled from his majority SC justices a bar on the Senate from prying into his dollar deposits. A reversal of past SC rulings that allow probes of foreign currency accounts, the prohibition covers the inter-agency Anti-Money Laundering Council. The AMLC consists of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, Securities and Exchange Commission, and Insurance Commission.
Is a CJ answerable to the SC? In theory, perhaps. In practice, it’s the CJ who signs the salaries, representation and travel allowances, mid-year and yearend bonuses, and other emoluments of justices and staffs. He can withhold from any of them releases from the multibillion-peso JDF and SAJ. Corona’s majority justices have barred the Senate court from subpoenaing any more SC magistrates and employees to testify in his impeachment hearings. No move has prospered to make him go on leave while on trial, if only to avoid talk of SC partiality or judicial sanctuary.
Can a CJ be sued in court? Mrs. Corona’s family’s Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc. got the answer the painful way. Aggrieved that Mrs. Corona took hold of the P34-million proceeds from BGEI’s sale of a prime property, they sued for fraud. In turn they were sued — and convicted — for libel. The money, by admission of Corona’s lawyers, ended up either in three bank accounts in his name, or used to purchase one of his several condos, or partly lent to him. The kin’s fraud complaint continues to drag in court for 14 years. Could the same happen at the Sandiganbayan, in case the Ombudsman files the three hidden-wealth cases against Corona? The anti-graft Sandiganbayan court is under the SC is under the CJ.
Is a CJ answerable to the Armed Forces of the Philippines? On file are 31 handguns and assault rifles in Corona’s name. The personal armory puts to shame some units of the AFP, which the Constitution states is the country’s only armed force.
Meantime, Corona issues only unsworn press statements. Examiners cannot ask him about his inconsistencies. For one, why he closed three accounts totaling P37 million on Dec. 14, 2011, the day he was impeached, supposedly because he had lost trust in the bank, only to redeposit it in a single account in the same branch on the same day. Or why, on the day a famous news blog exposed a California house and lot linked to his name, he said it was merely his family’s US mailing address, only to admit the next day that it is his daughter’s (bought only 22 days from her supposed purchase of a classy condo in McKinley Hills, The Fort, Metro Manila). Also why he reportedly voted twice, for himself and a hospitalized justice, in a tight 8-7 SC ruling that is presently disquieting untold numbers of lot owners in former friar lands nationwide. And why, despite his (reluctant) release of sworn Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth for the years 2000 to 2010, he insists on hiding the SALN for 2011 that he filed last week.
Presumably, Corona as highest interpreter of Constitution and law is right to say and do all this. Maybe the wrong is with the framers of the Constitution, and the ratifying people, who made an untouchable CJ.