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MANILA, Philippines – The conviction and ouster of Renato Corona as Chief Justice on Tuesday came with a challenge for Philippine leaders to herald "a new dawn of transparency" and to raise the bar for public accountability. No sooner had senators voted to convict Corona, in fact, when the very congressmen who initiated the impeachment complaint against him, and the senators who concluded the trial, found the spotlight trained on them.
Senators on Tuesday voted 20-3 to convict Corona for culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust. He was ousted specifically on findings that he had concealed millions of pesos and dollars from a statement of assets and net worth legally required of all Philippine public officials.
Corona was effectively and immediately stripped of his title as chief magistrate of the Philippines.
Even before the impeachment trial could be concluded, however, senators took turns challenging each other to henceforth hold all public officials to the same stringent standards of transparency and accountability by which Corona was indicted and ultimately convicted. Corona had been made an example of, they effectively said, but the responsibility of setting an example, they added, should start with the members of Congress that had started and ended the impeachment process.
Specifically, suggested Senators Alan Peter Cayetano, Pia Cayetano, and Francis Escudero, senators should take the lead in heeding Corona’s challenge to issue waivers for the release of their own bank accounts, as the former Chief Justice had done in his own defense.
Members of the House of Representatives, from whose ranks the panel that prosecuted Corona came, were inevitably asked about their own SALNs, and their own plans to make the documents accessible to the public.
Leaders of the chamber had refused to make public their SALN despite requests from the media, saying that it could distract attention from the then ongoing Corona trial.
On Tuesday, Corona was found guilty via a 20-3 vote of the senator-judges for failing to disclose his assets in his SALN.
When asked in a news conference after the trial, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said he will "exert best effort" for all House members to release their SALNs.
"We will set it in motion, we will discuss it," Belmonte said when asked about their SALN. "But personally, I'm willing to do it."
Asked anew when they intend to release the documents, he said, “At the end of the day, we will exert our best effort to let everybody do it.”
Belmonte described the trial as "cathartic" and "a changing event for us."
"This is the first ever impeachment case successfully launched in the country. It is certainly a triumph of the people and the country," he said.
Iloilo Representative Niel Tupas Jr., the head of the prosecution team, said “part of us is sad because of the difficulty of the process and because many have been hurt.”
Belmonte added there was no feeling of euphoria among the prosecutors who worked on the case.
"We feel the gravity of the decision. … All these reaffirm the principles, the standards by which every public official has to live by. . . . It sends a message that people have high expectations of people in government," he said.
Quezon Representative Lorenzo Tanada III, one of the prosecution spokespersons, said the decision to convict Corona should serve a lesson that public servants should live by the standard expected of them.
"Ito na ang hudyat ng makabuluhang pagbabago. Ngayon, nagtagumpay ang pwersa ng katotohanan at katapatan na nagsisilbi sa ating bayan at mamamayan," Tañada said. (This is the signal for meaningful change. The forces for truth and honesty in service of the people are triumphant.)
Corona was ironically convicted on the strength of his own testimony, where he admitted to having failed to declare in his SALN $2.4 million and P80 million. One by one, senators voting to convict expressed dissatisfaction or incredulity over Corona’s defense that any shortcomings in his SALN were inadvertent and borne of good faith; they noted that Corona’s private career as a lawyer, including years with an accounting firm, could only indict him from such failures to accomplish his SALN completely and truthfully.
Even as Corona was convicted, however, senators gave him credit for initiating that call for all other public officials to do as he did, and to sign waivers on the release of their bank accounts, in the interest of transparency and accountability.
Escudero said that he had already filed a bill to make such action mandatory, and called for senators to support the proposed law.
Sen. Pia Cayetano said regardless of how the Corona trial turned out, the impeachment proceedings had exposed flaws and weaknesses in Philippine rules and policies, and had underscored the need to open a new chapter to hopefully lessen the chronic corruption from which the Philippines suffers.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile echoed a sentiment raised many times by other senators, for example, that the impeachment trial at the least should now be taken to make clear that laws mandating the filing of SALNs should not be taken in conflict with laws guaranteeing bank account secrecy, particularly come to foreign currency deposits. The Foreign Currency Deposits Act (FCDA) which Corona invoked to justify the non declaration of his $2.4-million account, the senators took turns saying, is not irreconcilable with Philippine transparency and accountability rules. The good practice, they spelled out, should be to simply declare the peso equivalent of any foreign currency deposits in SALNs, without pressure of having to reveal any further details or breakdowns of the same foreign currency accounts.
What the Corona Impeachment Trial must ultimately establish, beyond the matter of Corona's being unfit for the title of Chief Justice, they said, is that public accountability principles must win out over any policies or laws that would seem or suggest to be in conflict with laws made for public accountability.