The Corona Impeachment Trial: Battling the institutions of secrecy


Banks are notorious for secrecy. There is, after all, a need to protect the rights and safety of their depositors and clients. Without banking secrecy laws, individuals and corporations could be at risk for theft and other monetary dangers. In this country, that would translate to family and friends constantly asking for loans that may never get paid, or worse, kidnappers targeting family members for ransom. Also, no one in his right mind would want the public to know just how much money he has.

The recent developments in the impeachment trial against Supreme Court Chief Justice Corona have once again tested the credibility of the banking secrecy laws as it goes head on against a number of subpoenas relating to the trial.

Peso accounts subpoenaed


The peso deposit accounts of Renato Corona have been revealed to be about P31 million for his various PS Bank and BPI accounts. This was known after the peso accounts were subpoenaed by the Senate in relation to the impeachment proceedings. Impeachment is one of the five exemptions when it comes to the banking privacy laws.

The first copies of the alleged accounts were supposed to be given by an unidentified small lady to one of the lead prosecutors of the case. However, the CCTV of the Senate did not record any such lady interacting or handing anything out to the lawyer. While it was presented in Court, the PS Bank manager called them fake. The Prosecution claimed it had no idea that the bank documents were fake, but the damaging information was already revealed to the public.

The Defense team claimed that the money in the accounts was from the sale of the corporation of Corona’s wife and not ill-gotten wealth from the government. The Defense has also reiterated that they will explain everything in due time and present the necessary documents to the public later on to prove their side.

President Aquino himself has been very vocal about the authenticity of the bank documents. He even questioned why Filipinos were reluctant to believe the veracity of such documents when they were highly incriminating. He has issued the challenge that if Corona had nothing to hide, then Corona should be the one to volunteer and reveal his statements and other bank documents.

Dollar accounts revealed


The dollar accounts, however, are now not anymore being subpoenaed since the law does not cover foreign deposit accounts.

At the time the law was crafted, it was meant to entice foreigners to place their foreign deposit accounts in the country. Our lawmakers wanted to make the Philippines competitive to Switzerland when it comes to the strength, credibility and secrecy of the banking system.

However, in true John Grisham fashion, the amounts of Corona’s foreign deposits were also revealed to the public, even without the benefit of a subpoena. Copies of alleged dollar deposits of Corona were slipped into the gates of the home of Quezon City’s 3rd District Representative Jorge Banal.

According to the Manager of PS Bank Katipunan, Banal personally went to the bank to ask her help in determining the authenticity and accuracy of the photocopied statements. However, she had to turn down his request.

Rock and a hard place


The Bank Manager in question, Annabelle Tiongson, is in a tricky situation indeed. She needs to protect the privacy of their depositors. Also, the bank could get sued for breach of privacy, much like when former President Erap Estrada sued Citibank and won when the bank released his banking information.

Tiongson needs to be very careful about her answers. She also needs to protect her branch, because Banal himself said that someone is helping them. If this is true, then there is obviously someone violating banking privacy laws in PS Bank. How else could these statements, whether authentic or not, leak out to the public and land in the hands of the Prosecution?

When faced under the strict questioning of the Prosecutors and the Senator Judges, Ms. Tiongson was clearly uncomfortable. She probably never thought in her entire career that being a bank manager would land her in the halls of Senate to testify against the Supreme Court Chief Justice!

Need to balance secrecy and transparency


The SALNs of the Supreme Court Justices have been kept under lock and key for many years. In the case of the ongoing impeachment proceedings, it took Senator Franklin Drilon to get the SALNs of the Chief Justice to be presented to the Court by the Supreme court clerk, after failed attempts of the Prosecution to get the documents.

There are privacy laws in place to ensure the security and privacy of individuals. However, there is also a need to balance the need for transparency, especially when there is a need to fight corruption.

Here lies the conundrum. How do you prove that someone has ill-gotten wealth without first seeing the bank statements of the accused? You can only file an impeachment complaint and there will be an impeachment trial if there is substantial basis for the accusation. At the same time, the Prosecution cannot use the subpoenas to gather evidence against Corona, since they are supposed to already have such evidence at the time they filed the impeachment complaint.

Help from the public

This is where the mysterious help from the people comes in. Thanks to private sympathizers to the cause of the Prosecution, these very private bank documents are now surfacing, with blatant disregard for privacy banking laws. The Prosecution claims that this type of help just shows how the public supports the impeachment proceedings.

Does the end justify the means?

However, we should all remember that this is still against the law. Even if we think he’s the bad guy and he’s guilty, no one has the right to open these accounts and make them public, unless the depositor himself asks for it, or if there is an impeachment.

If we go back to the Marcos plunder case, the government lawyers didn’t get any anonymous help from Swiss bankers when it came to Marcos’ accounts. This just further established the strength and credibility of the Swiss banking system, protecting the privacy of alleged crooks, convicts, millionaires and other depositors equally.

This is also the type of “accidental leaking” to the media that has plagued this case from day one. Institutions of secrecy are made for a purpose, and it’s up to the Prosecution to get around them but through legal means.

Even if these revelations about Corona’s accounts have helped the Prosecution, we shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture. These actions are sending the wrong message to the financial community. We may slowly be destabilizing the banking industry by violating privacy laws. At worst, a bank run may ensue if depositors feel their money and privacy aren’t safe.

As such, we should all tread carefully.


Photo from Philippine Senate website. Some rights reserved.


Originally posted at Blog Watch.