The online news portal of TV5
The Senate, convened as an impeachment court over the past four months, adjourned on Monday having heard the final arguments of lawyers prosecuting and defending Chief Justice Renato Corona, and now placing the fate of the chief magistrate solely in the hands of senator-judges.
The senators are expected to vote on Tuesday either to convict and immediately remove Corona from his post as Chief Justice, or to acquit and send the Philippines into uncharted political waters.
It will ultimately be a political vote, and while there will be time on Tuesday for each senator-judge to explain his or her vote, the impeachment trial had in fact progressed, and will conclude, with no formal guideline or consensus on the criteria for voting to either convict or acquit. The senators early on in the trial had raised questions as to the "quantum of evidence" or the level of proof that they should seek – whether at par with standards for criminal, civil, or administrative cases – but there was never any resolution on the matter.
That will leave Corona's fate to be determined by a mixed group of lawyers and non-lawyers distributed over a number of political parties and affiliations, and each with different political considerations and interests heading into a crucial election season.
Congressmen composing a panel of prosecutors on Monday accused Corona of "deception of the highest order" and called for his sacking, as the historic four-month trial reached a climax. The final plea to oust the Chief Justice came from no less than the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Feliciano Belmonte.
The first Supreme Court justice to stand trial, Renato Corona is accused of hiding millions of dollars' worth of assets and other graft, claims he says were cooked up by President Benigno Aquino to have him removed.
"Palusot." Excuses, excuses. This was how Ilocos Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas - as member of the House panel prosecuting Chief Justice Renato Corona - characterized the defense of the chief magistrate in the concluding impeachment trial against him.
Fariñas said Corona and his lawyers' explanations for peso and dollar properties undeclared in the Chief Justice's statements of assets and net worth (SALN) all amounted to "one flimsy excuse after another" ("puro palusot") - all coming too weakly and too late supposedly after Corona had been caught in what lead prosecutor Niel Tupas recapped as "lies".
Fariñas said Corona's accounting for $2.4 million and P80 million that went undeclared in his SALNs were hard to swallow.
The Chief Justice on Friday tried to counter suggestions that the moneys were ill-gotten, saying the dollar amounts could be easily explained by his and his wife's discipline and foresight in saving dollars starting from the 1960's. Corona had even noted that he started investing in dollars in the late 1960s when the peso traded at "2-to-1" with the US dollar.
As for not declaring the savings in his SALN, Corona and his lawyers have insisted that the Chief Justice had no obligation to declare his dollar "savings" given laws guaranteeing secrecy and privacy in foreign currency deposits. The peso accounts, they add, were not actually entirely Corona's, and were supposedly aggregated and co-mingled savings of Corona, his wife, children, and even relatives tied to a family company.
Fariñas, however, mocked the very notion of Corona hoarding dollars starting from the 1960s. By the prosecution's accounting, for the Chief Justice's story to hold true, Corona started buying dollars "when he was in Grade 4." Meanwhile, he said Corona's story about co-mingled funds contradicted what the prosecution tried to portray as an increasingly convoluted story that at turns made clear delienations between his properties and assets and those of his children and relatives, and at turns suggested they were one and the same.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona, 63, is accused of protecting graft-tainted former president Gloria Arroyo from prosecution, as well as lacking integrity and amassing a personal fortune above the limits of his salary - which he failed to declare as required by the constitution.
The maximum penalty for a guilty verdict on any of the three charges is his removal, but the Senate, sitting as a court, said it also has the option of imposing the lesser penalties of censure, reprimand, fine, or suspension.
In his closing argument Monday, chief prosecutor Niel Tupas said the senator-judges must convict and impose the severest penalty for Corona's failure to declare bank deposits including $2.4 million in US dollar accounts. He said the campaign to oust Corona was not one waged against one man, but rather one to rid the Philippine justice system of "evils".
"His lies in the SALN (his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth) run into the hundreds of millions and cannot be ignored," Tupas said.
Tupas said these assets were significantly higher than the P22.9 million (about $533,000) net worth declared by Corona in his 2010 declaration, an annual constitutional requirement for all public officials.
Corona's removal was sought by Aquino, who was elected to the presidency in 2010 on a platform to end corruption which he claimed reached pervasive levels during Arroyo's term.
Aquino has accused Arroyo of illegally appointing Corona as chief justice just before she stepped down, allegedly to protect her from prosecution. Arroyo is now in detention while separately being tried for vote rigging.
Corona was impeached by Aquino's allies in the House of Representatives in December, which then sent the complaint to the Senate for trial.
Millions of Filipinos have closely followed the trial, which began in January, and various opinion surveys have indicated that Aquino enjoyed widespread public support for pursuing a judge perceived to be corrupt.
Corona however was backed by his peers in the judiciary amid warnings the president may have violated constitutional provisions in his zeal to remove the chief justice.
Sixteen votes, about two-thirds of the chamber, are required to unseat Corona. The senators, who include only four members of Aquino's party, have been tight-lipped about how they intended to vote.
The senator-judges were expected to announce their vote in individual speeches later Monday or Tuesday.
Corona's lawyer Eduardo de los Angeles stressed that Corona did not commit any "high crime" cited by the constitution, such as treason, bribery, or corruption, that would be cause for his removal.
Corona's failure to declare his dollar savings was covered under the country's strict bank confidentiality laws, his lawyer said.
At most, Corona's failure to declare the dollar deposits was a minor breach of another law requiring public officials to declare all their assets, and this can be remedied by filing an amended statement of assets, de los Angeles added.
"Certainly a high government official should not be impeached nor removed from office for any minor breach of the law."
Last week, Corona appeared as the final witness in his defence and delivered a three-hour testimony accusing Aquino of a conspiracy to oust him.
He claimed his impeachment was the result of a personal vendetta by Aquino following a landmark Supreme Court ruling to break up Hacienda Luisita, a giant sugar estate owned by the president's clan.
That court decision came shortly before Aquino's allies voted to impeach Corona. With reports from Joseph Hollandes Ubalde, InterAksyon.com, and from Agence France-Presse