The online news portal of TV5
MANILA, Philippines - Day 38 of Chief Justice Corona's impeachment trial saw Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales baring 'significant deposits and withdrawals' in the purported dollar accounts of Chief Justice Renato Corona during the 2004 and 2007 elections, and in December 2011, the month he was impeached.
But her testimony also invited questions as to whether or not she wields "too much power". Several senators also said Carpio-Morales’ disclosure of the Anti-Money Laundering Council's report on Corona's accounts set a dangerous precedent that could be used by any administration to terrorize political foes.
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago said the Ombudsman had in fact overstepped by acting "more powerful than the President" when she ordered the AMLC to probe the Chief Justice's accounts.
Taking the witness stand for the second day as a hostile witness for the defense, Morales said that, based on the report made available to her by the Anti-Money Laundering Council, Corona withdrew $769,681 on December 15, 2011, four days after he was impeached by the House of Representatives.
The amount of money put into and withdrawn from Corona's dollar accounts in BPI, PSBank and Allied Bank totaled $3,388,323.14 from December 12 to 20, 2011, Morales said.
She also noted six deposits totaling over $500,000 to Corona's BPI San Francisco del Monte account on May 3, 2007.
On May 14, 2004, two deposits worth $500,000 each were also made to Corona's accounts.
But asked on redirect by retired Justice Serafin Cuevas, Corona’s lead counsel, whether she had vetted the accuracy and credibility of the AMLC report, Carpio-Morales admitted this was beyond her means, particularly the details in the bank.
"Are the contents of that report correct and in accordance with law? I wouldn’t know," Carpio-Morales said.
But, she added, "The presumption is that they will provide me the right information."
Carpio-Morales said she also looked into Corona's peso accounts but not bring the documents for these as the subpoena issued her covered only the dollar accounts.
She also denied Corona's statement that the AMLC on his dollar accounts were a "lantern of lies," saying "these documents were delivered to me by the executive director of AMLC, Vicente Aquino."
The AMLC, in a statement handed out to reporters, denied engaging in partisan activity or violating any law, particularly the Anti-Money Laundering Act, when it aided the Office of the Ombudsman in investigating Corona’s dollar accounts.
It said government officials who submit their statements of assets, liabilities and net worth also sign a waiver authorizing the Ombudsman to obtain documents that verify the authenticity of the information contained in the SALN.
The waiver "authorize(s) the Ombudsman or his duly authorized representative to obtain and secure from all appropriate government agencies, including the Bureau of Internal Revenue such documents that may show assets, liabilities, net worth, business interests and financial connections, to include those of the spouse and unmarried children below 18 years of age living within the household covering previous years to include the year first assumed office in government."
Too much power
Taking the floor after both the prosecution and defense had completed their cross-examination and redirect of Carpio-Morales, Santiago said: "Sa kanyang (Morales) interpretation (of the law), walang limit ang kanyang powers. Ang sinasabi ko(In her interpretation , there are no limits to her powers. I say), 'Of course not.'"
"Dahil magiging mas makapangyarihan pa siya sa Presidente o sa Senate President o sa Speaker of the House - she will be the most powerful person in the country!"
Santiago asked the Ombudsman whether she had the power to instruct agencies like the AMLC to probe the Chief Justice even without a written court order.
"Under the law, you have to go to a judge, you have to get an order from a judge to get the bank accounts," she pointed out. "'Di niya sinunod 'yun. At ipinipilit niya na may ganoon siyang kapangyarihan (She does not follow that. And she insists that she has those powers)."
Corona's defense team said the AMLC should have first obtained a court order to look into Corona’s accounts.
Defense spokesperson Karen Jimeno said the only exceptions to this are kidnapping, hijacking, illegal drugs, not impeachment or graft and corruption.
"In this case there should have been a court order," Jimeno said. "The question here deals with the due process of the accused."
Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the AMLC investigation of Corona’s dollar accounts violated the Foreign Currency Deposit Law, which requires the formal consent of the depositor.
"They (AMLC) did it. The law here was violated. Why did they investigate it when there is a no predicate crime as required by law? That is a requisite. The release of information (on dollar bank accounts) requires a court order," he said.
"Is this a new doctrine? A new system that on the basis of a complaint the Ombudsman can already gain the information from the AMLC and can publicize that information?" he asked.
"The Ombudsman is not a judge. She is a prosecutor. She is a glorified fiscal for the government. They got around the AMLC, they got around the foreign currency deposit law," Marcos added.
"There is supposed to be bank secrecy on FCD. It is supposed to be absolute but somehow that has been pierced," he pointed out.
Asked if Monday's revelation of Morales on the Corona dollar account appeared alarming as it could be used as a political tool, Marcos replied: "Yes, it could be abused."
However, Marcos also acknowledged that even if the AMLC report is declared inadmissible, "nasabi na (it has already been revealed) and so it remains in our consciousness."
Senator Jose Estrada said revealing the AMLC report on Corona's accounts public "would be a dangerous precedent because those who are hostile to this administration or any administration for that matter… the Ombudsman can just ask the AMLC about bank accounts of personalities (and publicize them)."
Carpio-Morales also admitted that part of her investigation into Corona's accounts is for the possible filing of a second impeachment complaint against the Chief Justice in case he is acquitted in the current trial.
Pressed by Santiago, she said part of her mandate is to investigate an impeachable officer "for the purpose of filing a verified complaint for impeachment."
"I don't see any reason why there is no chance for me to file ... if that is warranted," the Ombudsman said.
At one point, Santiago lost her temper, telling Carpio-Morales: "You’re arguing with a senator-judge!"
"Mea culpa," Carpio-Morales quickly replied.
"Apology accepted," Santiago said.
To which the Ombudsman replied: "Noted."
'SALN is a waiver'
But Carpio-Morales maintained that the waiver attached to the SALNs of government officials authorizes the Ombudsman "to seek the help of agencies" to secure information on the financial records and business interests of a public official.
"To me, that is a blanket authority," she said.
When she was questioned by Sen. Francis Pangilinan on the importance of the SALN waiver, the Ombudsman said, "It is very valuable because it authorizes me ...There should be no doubt that he (SALN filer) authorizes me to look into his assets."
Senator Sergio Osmena III agreed, saying Corona waived his rights under the Bank Secrecy Law and Foreign Currency Deposit Law when he signed his SALN.
“That’s already a waiver when you signed your SALN. That’s a waiver of the Bank Secrecy law. That’s a waiver of the Foreign Currency Deposit Act,” he said.
He also that the Code of Ethical Standard of Public Officials and Employees and Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act authorizes the Ombudsman to dig into anybody’s bank account if a waiver was signed, as in the case of Corona’s SALN.
He also said impeachment proceedings are exempted under the Bank Secrecy Law.
"So it's not a violation of the law" to divulge Corona's accounts.
Senator Franklin Drilon, on the other hand, said Corona failed to declare several dollar amounts in his SALNs for some years.
He said $72,242.44 was deposited in Corona's alleged dollar account in PSBank on July 2005 and withdrawn on October 6, 2008. However, this was never declared in Corona's SALNs from 2005 to 2007.
An amount of $455,210.07 was also "existing" in Corona's dollar account as of December 31, 2008 but was not declared in his SALN.
Drilon also noted that $768,733.96 was available in Corona's account on October 31, 2008 and withdrawn only on December 15, 2011, while $299,937.86 available on November 9, 2007 was withdrawn on August 5, 2008. Again, these were not disclosed in his SALN.
'Beyond competence, but not comprehension'
During the redirect by Cuevas, Carpio-Morales acknowledged that the AMLC report may have been “beyond my competence, yes, beyond my comprehension, no,” when asked by Cuevas if she understood the 17-page document given her admission that she was not well-versed in banking processes and jargon.
She also admitted that she sought the help of the Commission on Audit to interpret some details of the AMLC report and in preparing a PowerPoint presentation on Corona’s bank accounts that she showed the Senate on Monday.
"My office, with the assistance of the COA, I asked them to visualize this ... I was personally involved," she said.
Earlier, defense lawyer Jose Roy III said that while he was not questioning the authenticity of the AMLC report, he doubted whether it showed the entire picture.
"I'm not sure … if what she (Carpio-Morales) presented is everything that AMLC reported. Secondly, this is obviously raw data. You've seen the documents. We cannot make heads or tails out of it. I'm sure when the Ombudsman received it, she didn't know either," he said.
Roy said they met with Corona on the AMLC report "for a good part of the day" and the Chief Justice remains optimistic on the progress of the trial on so far.
But asked whether the Ombudsman’s disclosure of the AMLC report was according to their plan, Roy said: "Did it go according to plan? Well, it went according to plan, but not ours." (Abigail Kwok, Joseph Holandes Ubalde, Lira Dalangin-Fernandez and Karl John C. Reyes, InterAksyon.com)