MANILA ,Philippines (Jan 15, 2012) – Ahead of the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona tomorrow, the beleaguered chief magistrate faces a new allegation that the Supreme Court misused a million-dollar World Bank(WB) loan under his watch, even as he has his hands full explaining initial "tip of the iceberg" evidence in the form questionable real estate acquisitions made public recently.
A World Bank “aide memoire” reveals that a portion of the a $21 million loan released to the Supreme Court as additional funding for its Judicial Reform Support Project (JRSP) was disbursed for procurements and expenses outside of its original purpose, including printing supply of the Court Reporter’s Case Index, purchase of laptop computers, speaker’s fee for seminars, registration fee of justices attending international conferences, and foreign travels of justices and their staff (including airfare, hotel accommodations and meal allowances).
The JRSP was designed to restore efficiency in the dispensation of justice in the country.
The WB aide memoire contains the results of a fiduciary review conducted by a WB team through discussions with justices of the high court and field visits to courts all over the country from the period Oct. 24-Nov. 11, 2011. The task team rates JRSP as a ‘high risk’ and ‘unsatisfactory’ on project management, project procurement and financial management dimensions, and observes that project financial statements can no longer be relied upon.”
The report among other things mentions of “inaccurate/incomplete information” on the project’s financial management report, “diminished existing internal check-and-balance mechanism,” purchase of information technology equipment outside of the agreed procurement plan, and the practice of borrowing funds from the loan for the justices’ foreign travels paid to a travel agency owned by lawyer Estelito Mendoza.
The same report also scores Corona’s appointment of one man as court administrator, head of the Public Information Office, and chair of the Bids and Awards Committee. The court administrator was authorized to approve, on Corona’s behalf, payments of up to P200,000 which was later increased to P500,000, the World Bank said.
This description clearly applies to the person of Atty. Midas Marquez, although he was not named in the report.
“Lack of appropriate segregation of duties of key officials involved in the JRSP has created a breakdown of the control environment, increased fiduciary and reputation risks, and led to irregular/inappropriate procurement and expenditure decisions,” it said.
“This senior official, due to the combination of his appointments and functions, was the requestor of the services, the approver of the terms of reference, the end-user of the services provided by the firm, the authorizer of contract extensions, and the authorizer of payments to the firm,” the World Bank said, adding that said arrangement points to a conflict of interest and eliminated "internal checks and balances applicable to the procurement and disbursement functions.”
In view of unearthed irregular expenses, the World Bank has canceled the final tranche of the said loan amounting to $0.5 million and is demanding a refund amounting to $199,900 on or before January 31, 2012. The refund covers 70 disbursements that are ineligible or unauthorized under the terms of the JRSP.
Meanwhile, a lawyer who is among the volunteers of the House prosecution panel in the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona declared yesterday that their initial evidence against the chief magistrate is just the “tip of the iceberg.”
Lawyer Aristotle Batuhan was referring to the evidence already made public by the House panel on the supposed condominium units and other real estate that are allegedly owned by Corona and family.
Batuhan belongs to one of the legal teams created to help the House prosecution secure Corona’s impeachment.
Batuhan, however, did not elaborate on the evidence, saying it would be better to have them presented during the impeachment trial which starts tomorrow.
“Corona’s plummeting trust and approval ratings indicate that the public believes in the process of impeaching him and are convinced that he is unfit to hold the position of chief justice and therefore want him impeached,” Batuhan said.
One of the House prosecutors, Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption party-list Rep. Sherwin Tugna, also said the “quantum of proof” against Corona is strong and that his lawyers are expected to steer the proceedings like a criminal trial.
Tugna, however, maintained the impeachment trial is sui generis or a class of its own – neither a criminal nor an administrative proceeding.
“Our point is that we are only determining the fitness of a person to hold office. He (Corona) will not be imprisoned, he will just be removed,” he said.
“So we believe preponderance of evidence against him is enough like in a civil case where there is a scale and where the evidence is heaviest or tilts, that is where the decision will come from,” Tugna said.
He said that is why the defense lawyers would want to make the proceedings in the Senate like a criminal trial so that admissibility of evidence would be strict.
He cited the case of the Bellagio condominium property of the Coronas that the defense lawyers said should not be admitted since it is not part of the eight charges against the Chief Justice.
“But our argument would be on the relevancy (of the ownership documents) in the case of his failure to file his SALN (statement of assets, liabilities and net worth), and not inadmissibility as the defense lawyers would likely argue,” Tugna said.
He said another tack the defense lawyers might take tomorrow is to file a motion to dismiss the charges or to stop the trial.
“They are battle-tested lawyers, while some of us are weekend warriors so I have been studying hard for this,” Tugna said.
Tugna and Marikina City Rep. Romero Quimbo called on Corona to take the easy way out and resign.
Tugna said it is not too late for Corona to resign especially that more and more reports of his alleged wrongdoings are coming out in the media.
Quimbo said resignation is entirely a personal choice for Corona. “In the end, he will always have to think what is best for the institution that he is serving,” he said.
Even if the evidence against Corona is strong, Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara, spokesman for the 11-member House prosecution panel, said they cannot let their guard down because the chief magistrate has a formidable defense team.
Angara said Corona’s lawyers are well known in the legal profession for their expertise and experience in litigation and other legal battles.
“We can expect a difficult trial. His lawyers will use every trick, every technicality to acquit him, hide the truth or even stop the trial,” Angara said.
He cited the comments of former Justice Serafin Cuevas, the head of Corona’s defense team, that the Chief Justice cannot be summoned to testify in his own trial because he has the right against self-incrimination.
The same is the case for Corona’s wife and children, who cannot be expected to testify against him in connection with his alleged ill-gotten wealth, Angara said.
“Our point is that we wish they (defense team) would waive that right (against self-incrimination) and let them tell the truth,” Angara said.
“We are definitely not taking them for granted, they are very skilful lawyers,” he said.
Quezon Rep. Lorenzo Tañada, also a member of the prosecution team, said they would first make the presentation of evidence during which they expect the defense lawyers to make various motions to weaken the prosecution’s presentation.
Tañada said the senator-judges are also expected to vote on every motion to be raised by lawyers of both sides.
“But (Corona’s lawyers) cannot shield themselves or block things with technicalities and we are prepared for them,” he said.
Tañada also challenged Corona to keep his promise to donate all his properties if they are proven to be ill-gotten.
The prosecutors alleged that Corona has 45 properties based on the records of the Land Registration Authority (LRA). Corona has denied the allegations.
“Well, let us see. We will wait until the impeachment hearing,” Tañada said.
“On the challenge of Chief Justice Corona that he will sign deed of donations for his alleged 45 properties if proven to be his, well, we will be happy to accept these for the people and we will sell these for benefit of the state,” he added. Tañada said Corona should just disclose how he acquired the 45 properties.
He also challenged Corona to disclose his Statement of Assets Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN), which have been withheld from the public since 2002 when he was appointed a justice of the Supreme Court.
Speaking before an Impeachment Forum held Friday at Fr. Urios University in Butuan City, Tañada said the last time Corona disclosed his SALN was in 2001 with only five properties listed in his name.
Tañada told the forum that the prosecution team is digging deeper to find out where Corona found the resources to acquire the properties.
Malacañang said Corona has a lot of explaining to do with regard to the properties he allegedly accumulated since only P13.9 million was reflected in his SALN in 2002 or before he joined the SC.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said Corona must be able to justify how he managed to acquire properties worth P200 million based on reports.
Valte said based on records, Corona declared a net worth of only P13.9 million in 2002 and a government official of 20 years could have not afforded such luxurious properties with the income he was getting.
“Well, that has to be justified as to how he was able to acquire that considering that he has been in government for 20 years,” Valte said over radio dzRB.
“And if so, all his tax returns must reflect his capacity to pay,” Valte said.
“We do not want to pass judgment but allow me to reiterate that (the) Land Registration Authority is the repository of all the titles, of all land titles and condominium titles in the Philippines. They are the ones who keep that, they are the ones who authenticate (and determine) whether titles are fake or not. So let’s just see how that will come out,” Valte said.
She said she herself cannot make a proper assessment of the values of the properties.
“But let us see how that will be part of trial,” she said.
Malacañang earlier called on all government officials to submit their SALNs as part of transparency and accountability.
Valte said the Department of the Interior and Local Government had even asked local officials to fully disclose their financial activities as required by the law.
“Part of the DILG’s mandate is to ensure that local government leaders are compliant to the law’s mandate,” Valte said.
Tañada also called on all officials and personnel from the three branches of government to make public their SALNs.
Tañada said that while the Constitution clearly states that all public officials are publicly accountable, there are different policies and rules on how each public official should disclose his SALN.
“The Chief Justice thinks that he is beyond reach of anyone and this is where lies why this impeachment process had to go through. Of course, all of us in government from the President, Vice President, members of constitutional bodies, Ombudsman, the judiciary and members of legislative are all accountable to the people although we have go through different processes” Tañada said.
He said it is not a sin for public officials and personnel to own real estate properties provided no ill-gotten wealth is involved in their acquisition.
“For Chief Justice Corona, his non-disclosure of his SALN was based on then Chief Justice Andres Narvasa’s 1990 memorandum order to exempt members of the Supreme Court (and) not obliging them to disclose their SALN so that they will not be subject for harassment, fishing expedition. Our position for that is we in the legislative are also the subject of harassment, but it does not mean we have no obligation to publicly disclose our SALN,” he said.
Malacañang dismissed Corona’s claim that the release of the list of his assets was black propaganda.
Valte also lashed out at retired archbishop Oscar Cruz for saying that the impeachment trial of Corona was nothing but “political gimmickry.”
“How can it be political gimmickry when there are solid allegations... in the articles of impeachment,” Valte said.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda also sent a text message to dzRB while Valte was being interviewed.
Lacierda asked Cruz to refrain from commenting on issues that he was not aware of.
“In addition to reading the Bible, please read the Constitution and the deliberations. It will show your scholarly ignorance on matters you are commenting on,” Lacierda said.
Valte added the public would just have to monitor the impeachment trial and decide.
“The ones who will decide and make the final analysis will be the senator-jurors. Let the evidence be presented and the defense, how the lawyers of Chief Justice Corona will defend him,” she said.
Valte added Malacañang would not be distracted from other things that must be done while the impeachment process was taking place.
“Of course, the President did say that we will be monitoring what will be happening in the impeachment trial. But on the side of the executive, it’s business as usual. Our work continues,” she said.
In response to the WB report, Corona's lawyer and spokesperson Ramon Esguerra cries foul. "It is unfair," he said. “Two days before the opening of the trial and there’s this story?” he said. “The barrage of black propaganda has not ceased. In fact, it’s now coming out with greater intensity.”
He called the latest allegation “a pattern of harassment intended to demonize the chief justice in the eyes of the public,” and it should be the whole Supreme Court who should respond to the accusation, not Corona alone.