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Hesitant clerk of court surrenders Corona's SALNs

MANILA, Philippines (Jan 19, 2012) – Supreme Court (SC) Clerk of Court Enriqueta Vidal hesitantly surrendering to the impeachment court the Statement of Asset and Liabilities and Networth (SALN) of Chief Justice Renato Corona was the biggest development on day 3 of the impeachment trial of the chief magistrate.

Even when there was advance information that Vidal would appear in yesterday's hearing in compliance of the Senate's subpoena duces tecum, no one had a clue that she brought Corona's SALNs to the impeachment court.

The impeachment court had ordered Vidal to present Corona's SALNs from 2002, when he was appointed Associate Justice of the SC, up to 2011. But the prospect of the impeachment court taking custody of these document seemed a long this early in the trial.

The widely shared the impression was that the Corona camp was doing its best to shield his SALNs not only from the prying eye of the public but more importantly from the impression court.

For nearly two hours, senators and prosecutors engaged in a tug-of-war with defense lawyers and the clerk of court of the Supreme Court (SC) over the release of the asset declarations of Chief Justice Corona.

After an hour and 40 minutes, SC clerk of court Enriqueta Vidal finally relented, handing over a folder containing Corona’s statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) that she had clutched throughout most of her testimony.

She was grilled by the impeachment court for three hours and 40 minutes.

In initially refusing to hand over the SALN, Vidal invoked an order issued in 1989 when the SC was headed by Andres Narvasa, which rendered the asset declarations of SC justices among the most tightly guarded secrets in government.

The resolution was reaffirmed by a succession of chief justices, from Hilario Davide Jr. to Artemio Panganiban and Reynato Puno, Corona’s immediate predecessor.

Appearing as the first witness in the impeachment trial, Vidal explained that her office merely receives the SALNs of the justices for safekeeping.

Vidal said that upon receipt of the subpoena issued by the Senate on Tuesday afternoon, she immediately referred it for inclusion in the agenda of the SC session.

Considering that the weekly full-court session of the SC was already over at the time she received the subpoena, Vidal explained that no action was taken as of yesterday and that the earliest time the Court can act on this would be Tuesday next week.

Vidal repeatedly cited her obligation to comply with a resolution of the Supreme Court governing requests for releases of the SALNs of court officials.

The court resolution, passed on May 2, 1989, exempts the court from the legal requirement for all public officials to file their respective SALNs and make these available to the public. Vidal explained that as a general rule, all requests for copies of the SALNs of court officials would have to be submitted to the SC for final decision.

The rule has apparently been respected through the years as Vidal herself noted before the Senate that less than 10 requests have been made for the release of SALNs of the justices since 1989.

Although arguing vigorously against unilaterally surrendering the SALN of Corona to the impeachment court, Vidal admitted that she brought the documents with her “out of respect for this court.”

“It’s an order for me to produce the SALN, but then it partakes also a request for the SALN. I don’t have any discretion to decide for myself, I am being guided by the resolution of May 2, 1989,” Vidal said.

After private prosecutor Mario Bautista ended his examination of Vidal, Sen. Franklin Drilon asked her what would she do if the SC refused to release Corona’s SALN to the Senate.

Vidal appealed to the Senate to wait for the SC to rule on the matter while expressing belief that this would be granted eventually.

This prompted Enrile to tell her that as custodian of the document, she has discretion over its release and that if the Senate issues a subpoena, it should readily be followed.

“If the impeachment court requires me to do so, I will do so. I have brought them with me,” Vidal said.

Enrile ordered Vidal to surrender the documents to the impeachment court, saying that the Senate “must not be impeded by any agency of government in the performance of its duty” (as an impeachment court).

But after agreeing to turn over the documents to the Senate, Vidal displayed her anguish.

“I am really in a dilemma. We are covered by the rules of the Supreme Court and also this honorable court. May I request that at least I get the authorization of the Court first?” Vidal asked. But Drilon flatly rejected request.

It was only Sen. Joker Arroyo, a vocal ally of the previous Arroyo administration, who manifested concerns over compelling Vidal to turn over the documents to the Senate.

“I am disturbed by these developments. The witness has asked that she would like to ask for authorization. We do not know how the Supreme Court will react. Let us suppose the Supreme Court says ‘do not release it,’ we will now run the risk of having a showdown between the impeachment court and the Supreme Court,” Arroyo said.

“In our desire to have a fair trial, I hope both sides, the prosecution and defense, will agree, give her a day to ask the Supreme Court whether they will agree rather than using the strong arm of the court. We already have too many problems,” he added.

Sen. Edgardo Angara noted that Vidal had already manifested her willingness to surrender the documents to them and that her concerns over the SC’s May 2, 1989 resolution only came as an afterthought.

Both Angara and Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III told Vidal that she had nothing to fear because surrendering the documents would be in compliance with a lawful order.

“You don’t have to fear at all because this is pursuant to a lawful order of a lawful authority and pursuant to a higher calling. I think history will be on your side, madame clerk of court. You don’t have to worry at all,” Angara said.

The lead counsel for Corona, former associate justice Serafin Cuevas, expressed his apprehension that Vidal could be subject to disciplinary action by the SC for violating its own rules on the release of SALNs.

Cuevas asked the Senate to ensure the protection of Vidal in the event that she ends up losing her job over the move to surrender the documents.

Enrile turned the tables on Cuevas and directed him to talk to his client, the Chief Justice, not to punish Vidal who was merely complying with orders from the impeachment court.

“I’m sure that the Supreme Court is composed of wise men and they would realize the implication of any contrary action to the order of the (impeachment court). Each branch of government must respect the prerogative of the other branch,” Enrile said.

The issue over the SALN of Corona is part of the second Article of Impeachment filed by the House of Representatives, which deals on his failure to disclose his financial records to the public as required by the Constitution.

After Vidal, the prosecution presented last night the second witness in the trial, Malacañang Records Office head Marianito Dimaandal.

Private prosecutor Jose Justin Justiniano questioned Dimaandal over the authenticity of the SALNs submitted to the Office of the President from 1992 to 2010. Corona was assistant secretary for legal affairs during the period.

The Senate has subpoenaed 11 registrars of deeds to testify for the prosecution on the questionable properties of the Chief Justice. They are from the cities of Makati, Parañaque, Pasay, Marikina, Taguig, and Quezon.

Dimaandal was able to testify only after the defense camp argued for about 30 minutes on the validity of Article 2 which tackles Corona’s alleged amassing of ill-gotten wealth as a public official. Dimaandal also presented to the court the SALN of Corona from 1992 to 2010.

The total assets of Corona stood at about P14 million as of June 20, 1992, and he had a liability of P300,000 (loan).

Cuevas called the prosecution’s questioning of Dimaandal “vague.” At one point, Enrile even aided the private prosecutor in “making the witness competent to testify on the document.”

During cross-examination, Dimaandal admitted that he is not in a position to answer the “correctness, authenticity and accuracy” of the SALN since he was the mere custodian of the documents.

“We have the official copy…the correctness and authentication of that we are not in the position to answer,” Dimaandal said. “As to accuracy of the correctness, I am not sure whether the entries in that document are correct.”

Senators Franklin Drilon and Francis Pangilinan sought clarification from Dimaandal whether the SALNs submitted to Malacañang were faithful reproductions of the true copies.

“Is the duplicate copy in your file a faithful reproduction of the original?” Drilon asked, to which Dimaandal replied in the affirmative. Dimaandal also replied yes when Pangilinan asked if the copies were actually “duplicate original.”

Before adjourning, Enrile directed nine other witnesses of the prosecution to appear at the resumption of the trial today.

“We are satisfied with the way Senate President Enrile is handling the trial, very, very fair statesman. What we are asking here is fairness, and avoid too much technicality,” lead prosecutor Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas said after the hearing.

Tupas said the panel presented “a pattern” to establish that Corona failed to disclose his SALN to the public, and that he did not declare his properties. “We leave it up to the senators to decide. To the people, you can get the copies,” Tupas said.

Prosecutors insisted Corona’s assets declared in his SALN from 2003 to 2010 were not enough to make him capable of acquiring even five properties that he admitted he owns.

In a press briefing, Quezon Rep. Erin Tanada said the justices’ issuance of a circular on the release of SALN was a violation of the Constitution.

“For me, it’s a violation of the Constitution because a circular cannot prevail over the Constitution. The Supreme Court has been violating the Constitution because of that circular. A circular can never be above the Constitution,” Tañada said.

“The SALN is the first step to reveal the truth. We respect their (defense panel) right to object, but let their objections be for the truth. In his SALN from 2003 to 2010, there was no mention of the five properties.”

Tañada said that based on the SALN filed by Corona in 2010, he only has a total asset of P18 million.

He said there was also no mention of the five properties that Corona claimed he acquired during his stint as justice and Chief Justice.

“His SALN indicates that he has a total asset of P18 million. You cannot acquire five properties with that,” Tañada said.

For his part, Marikina Rep. Romero Quimbo said they are elated that the impeachment court has finally paved the way for the release of Corona’s SALN.

“Despite the opposition of the defense for almost two hours, at least it (Corona’s SALN) is now made public. It is important to our ground no. 2 to prove that he violated Republic Act 6730 requiring all government officials to file their SALN and made it public and our allegations that he has ill-gotten wealth,” Quimbo said.

“Chief Justice Corona has admitted owning properties in the Bellagio, condos in Makati, Columns, Burgundy. Unless, each of these properties amounted only to P1 million, he cannot acquire them based on his total assets from 2003 to 2010,” Quimbo said. “His total asset from 2003 to 2009 is maintained at more than P14 million. His total assets in 2002 is P13.9 million based on the SALN that he has filed.” Quimbo said the announcement of SC spokesman Midas Marquez that Corona has allowed the release of Corona’s SALN was too late.

“They should have released it earlier. Under RA 6730, all government officials are required to reveal their SALN. The SC is the only institution that has issued a circular preventing disclosure of their SALN,” he said. “There was no conflict in the co-equal branches of government. Especially that it is illegal and against transparency.”

“The SALN will show the deceit of the Chief Justice. Honesty is among the characteristics that has to be maintained by the justices and government officials. If he did not declare all his assets in his SALN, then he is not honest,” Quimbo said.

Aurora Rep. Sonny Angara said the SALN is filed under oath. “If you misdeclare, it is perjury. If you do not declare, it is ill-gotten,” Angara said.

Drilon, meanwhile, said yesterday there were other ways to secure the information about the properties allegedly owned by Corona without actually having to invite him or his family.

“There are other ways by which the facts that they want to prove can be proven, not necessarily through the family,” Drilon said.

Drilon and Enrile denied the motion of the prosecution to summon Corona, his wife Cristina, their children Francis, Charina, Carla Corona-Castillo and her husband Constantino Castillo III to produce documents related to a number of properties across Metro Manila and to testify on the issue.

In denying the motion to summon Corona, Enrile said that the Chief Justice has a right against self-incrimination that is guaranteed under the Constitution.

For the family members of Corona, Enrile noted that they cannot be compelled to testify against the Chief Justice as provided for in the rules of court.

“The questions that they will ask, they have subpoenaed these public officials and I think there is a way of proving it without the family (actually being present),” Drilon said.

The subpoenas granted by Enrile covers 13 individuals – the city assessors and registrar of deeds of Makati, Taguig, Parañaque, Pasay, Marikina and Quezon City and to the clerk of court of the Supreme Court, Enriqueta Esguerra-Vidal.

Angara, who also voted to uphold Enrile’s ruling, said that there was no question that it was the right decision.

“One of the cardinal rules of trial is that a witness cannot testify against himself. This is not only applicable to the accused, but also to his immediate family. They should not be summoned by the court and expected to disclose information against their own interests,” Angara said.

“Constitutionalists and historians consider it one of the great advances of modern civilization – that no one can be compelled to testify against himself. The history of human rights violation is littered with incidents of men and women being compelled to disclose incriminating information through torture. This legal doctrine is a saving grace and the mark of a civilized judicial proceeding,” he added.

Angara said that he expects the prosecution to prepare better for the trial, especially considering that many of them are not experienced in litigation.

“I understand that many of the prosecutors are quite new to the whole process, and they were not very well prepared, but they will learn from their mistakes as we go along,” Angara said. (From