Day 30 Highlights of the Corona Impeachment Trial: Numbers has never been my game

by Wilfred Avila

I noticed, albeit with some amusement, that the media battle goes on unabated. The media has gone all out in asking supposedly innocent surveys in regards the Impeachment trials. This is the front where the Chief Justice is sadly losing the fight. Despite the claims of the Administration that the Chief Justice’s camp is spending a lot of money on the media, this is not seen by this poster.

It is, in fact, the admnistration who seem to be doing this with unabated passion. Even Secretary Lacierda mentions his opinion on the hearings on a daily basis despite his own promise to desist from doing so. Now, various organizations have joined the fray with schools and NGOs singing the same tunes and the resulting figures being trumpeted by the yellow media and the adminstation echoing and re-echoing the same.

Now, I stupidly ask myself, who exactly is the one spending millions of pesos to forward their own interests? You answer this question.

At the rate the hearings are going on, I foresee a sudden termination of the same. It would seem as if the Defense is running out of witnesses to present. We may even by left with nothing to watch and pre-judge even before the end of next week’s hearings.

This is highly volatile and dangerous for the Chief Justice. Public opinion has not been swayed too much yet by the defense panel as of yet. The long and tedious presentation by the Prosecution panel of six-weeks has left its mark on the people’s mind. The defense panel must clearly sway public opinion and show that the Prosecution’s complaints are all baseless. They face a formidable array of realities. One is the never-ending barrage of public and official forums that are used to constantly barrage the Chief Justice and the Defense. The second is the obvious confusion the public gets from the Senator-Judges acting as Prosecutors. The third being the lack of actual witnesses to counter the charges.

I ask myself what the game plan is. Are they going to do the battle in the memorandum to be issued by both camps at the end of the trial? This may not be enough. That memorandum is going to be private until such time as the Senator-Judges have made their decision on whethewr to acquit or convict! That may be too late!

Yet, life goes on. Earthquakes and the horrendous reality of rising prices and the actual decrease in the value of our monies continue unabated. The sky-rocketing cost of fuel and transportation have affected our fast declining peso value. Even our environment is affected by all this. SM Baguio goes on, seeming unbeatable, in cutting down the tress that line the center of the city. Anyone who complains is called a mob! Wow!

We cannot just look at the Impeachment trial as the beginning and end all of both our personal and political lives. That is short-circuiting our very nationhood. Yet, it would seem, that is the plan. As it is, there is CGMA’s trials that will be coming soon and another Justice’s impeachment hearings (del Castillo) is already in the horizon.

When do we truly, really and irrevocably wake up to the realities that face this nation? With this penchant of the administration to always rear its ugly head of vengance and revenge, mayber NEVER! And so, like everone else, we go back to the circus of the Impeachment hearings!

With eighteen Senator-Judges present, the 30th day of the Impeachment Trial opened at 2:15 pm. Without much ado, the Presiding Judge, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile began the prayers for the day.

While waiting for the first witness to enter the hall, Prosecutor Representative Marilyn Primicias-Aggabas informed the court that the missing documents mentioned by the lead Counsel in yesterday’s hearing has been found. A hand-written letter from Mrs. Cristina Corona, wife of impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona, was inadvertently inserted among the documents in her car.

In the letter, which was earlier reported missing, Mrs. Corona acknowledged the sale of seven parcels of land to her husband’s second cousin, Demetrio Vicente, in 1990. The other piece of document found missing was with the Defense team all along. Aggabas said the prosecution immediately returned the document to the defense team. “All’s well that ends well,” Enrile stated.

Cross examination of Supreme Court employee Araceli Bayuga continued as she took the witness stand once more. She clarified matters on the payroll ofr allowances and the 2006-2010 Supreme Court alpha list, previously asked for by the court. She was then discharged from the witness stand.

Engineer Roberto Villaruz, Officer-In-Charge of the Taguig City Assessor’s Office, took the witness stand. He is offered by the Defense Panel to prove the accuracy of statements in Chief Justice Corona’s SALNs from 2002 up to 2010. Villaruz explained the process of how a property is valued and assessed.

Villaruz continued to explain the non-inclusion of a P6.1-million condominium unit at McKinley Hill Village in Taguig City in Corona’s 2010 Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN).

Villaruz presented a photocopy of the certificate of title showing that the condominium unit has already been transferred to the name of the chief Magistrate’s daughter, Charina. Defense Lawyer Dennis Manalo said this was the “basis for the non-inclusion” of the P6.1-million property in Corona’s 2010 SALN.

Private prosecutor Jose Benjamin Panganiban, however, said that Villaruz cannot testify on the transfer certificate because he is not the custodian of the document. He said the register of deeds is more competent to testify on the matter.

Villaruz said that based on tax declarations, Corona’s condominium unit at the Bonifacio Ridge has an assessed value of over P1.4 million, a figure that matches the magistrate’s SALN declaration in 2010. Similarly, Corona’s condominium unit at the Bellagio Tower I has an assessed value of over P3.4 million, as reflected in the Corona’s SALN.

Villaruz further said that based on tax declarations, Corona’s condominium unit at the Bonifacio Ridge has an assessed value of over P1.4 million, a figure that matches Corona’s SALN declaration in 2010. The assessed value is the valuation placed on a property by a public tax assessor for purposes of taxation.

Villaruz also said that Corona’s condominium unit at the Bellagio Tower I has an assessed value of over P3.4 million, as reflected in the Chief Magistrate’s SALN in 2010.

The Taguig City assessor also presented a photocopy of a certificate of title of Corona’s condominium unit at McKinley Hill Village, which has already been transferred to the name of the chief magistrate’s daughter, Charina.

Defense lawyer Dennis Manalo said this was the “basis for the non-inclusion” of the P6.1-million property in Corona’s 2010 SALN.

Private prosecutor Jose Benjamin Panganiban, however, said that Villaruz cannot testify on the transfer certificate, since he is not the custodian of the document. He said the register of deeds is more competent to testify on the matter.

Senator-Judge Ralph Recto endeavored to help in explaining the concepts of fair market and assessed values in real estate.

Meanwhile, calls from the Senate Impeachment Court to have embattled Chief Justice Renato Corona testify in his trial grew louder Thursday, with Senator Panfilo Lacson joining the fray, saying only the chief magistrate could explain the P5-million ‘discrepancy’ in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) discovered during the day’s hearing.

During clarificatory questioning, Lacson pointed out that the supposed discrepancy in Corona’s declaration of two Taguig City properties — a condominium unit at the Bonifacio Ridge and another at The Bellagio in the Fort.

Earlier during the hearing, it was pointed out that Corona did not include in his 2010 the acquisition costs of several of its properties, and that only the properties’ fair market and assessed values were indicated.

In his SALN, Corona declared, based on deeds of sale, the fair market value of the Bonifacio Ridge unit at P9,159,949 and the Bellagio unit at P14,510,225. The total value of the two is more than P23.6 million.

However, in the same SALN, the total value of the two properties was listed as P18,438,980, showing what Lacson called a “discrepancy” of around P5 million. Lacson also pointed out that the total amount was placed under the “acquisition cost” column.

Lead Defense Counsel Cuevas reminded the Impeachment Court that discrepancies should not lead to a conviction if not committed in bad faith.

“If in the preparation and submission of the SALN, a public official making the same have relied on valuation made by an official of the government, it must be in good faith. There is no presumption of malice,” Cuevas said. “So a SALN, if there are errors or infirmities can be ordered corrected,” he added.

Lacson, however, insisted that Corona should prove the discrepancies were not done in bad faith, even as he called on the Chief Magistrate to finally come before the Court to testify.

“Kaya ang importante pa rin ay ang makausap natin si Chief Justice,” the senator said. “Maski clerk niya ang nag-declare nito, after all, siya ang nanunumpa dito so responsibilidad niya na alamin kung tama lahat ito.” Other senators who have earlier urged Corona to testify included Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, and Senators Recto, Loren Legarda and Antonio Trillanes IV.

At a press briefing during a break in the day’s trial, Defense Lawyer and spokesperson Tranquil Salvador III said their camp up to now has not yet reached a decision whether or not to present Corona.

“Kailangan po natin tandaan na hindi kasi iyan dahil lang sa calls. Hindi iyan dahil lang sa gustong idulog si Chief Justice,” he said.

Sen. Ralph Recto, for his part, asked the defense if there was a constitutional provision requiring a public official to declare all three values of a property, namely fair market, assessed, and acquisition value. Cuevas said there was no definite provision.

In the middle of Recto’s questioning, Senator-Judge Joker Arroyo stood up and reminded the prosecution that only Public Prosecutor — which in the impeachment trial’s case are the House Prosecutors — should be allowed to “argue on points of the law.”

“A private prosecutor cannot appear for the House of Representatives. Only a congressman can appear for the House of Representatives,” Arroyo said. With Arroyo’s statement, Private Prosecutor Benjamin Panganiban responded, “I will yield, your honor,” before returning to his seat, as he was replaced in the podium by Rep. Elpidio Barzaga.

It was then that the Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III interjected that the Civil Service Commission better be following Thursday’s proceedings because “somehow their SALN form is defective and confusing.” Enrile concurred.

Meanwhile, in a later interview with reporters, Senator-Judge Bongbong Marcos, said that the absence of the acquisition cost was “not questionable. I don’t know what the significance of that could be … maybe slightly improper but beyond that I don’t know what the significance is supposed to be. The assessed value is there, yun ang pinagbabatayan ng buwis (na) nandyan. Yung fair market value nandyan,” he said. “The significance is yet to be explained to us. I’m not making conclusions about that,” he added.

“I think so. I’m careful with that SALN because as I always tell everyone, the scrutiny that the CJ is being put under, we have been under that scrutiny for the last 26 years kaya maingat kami sa ganyang bagay,” he said.

Senator-Judge Edgardo Angara, for his part, said he thought public officials were given a choice on what to declare. “Sa SALN as I understand…you [are given] a choice. Either you put the acquisition cost or the fair market value or the assessed value… tatlo yun eh you have a choice of three valuations,” Angara said in an interview with reporters.

Though he noted that to “make life simpler” for him, he usually declared the acquisition cost. “It’s more or else the most to me objective measure of the value of what I acquired,” he said.

The Defense Team said that they may present the SALN of some public officials – maybe even Senators – to prove there are also other public servants who have the same practice as Corona.

In a text message, Senator-Judge Francis Escudero said that it is “within their rights” to use whatever evidence is available to defend their client.

In a separate text message, Senator-Judge Panfilo Lacson also said Corona’s team can present its defense in any way they want in order to convince the senator-judges and the public of his innocence.

At the same time, however, he reminded the defense panel that it is Corona who is on trial, not the senators. “Kung naghahanap ng damay ang defense, they may be able to get it but [in] another forum … at most, what he can accomplish is to open the senators to possible criminal charges for violation of RA 6713 and 3019. The bottom line still is, was there good or bad faith when CJ Corona swore to the truthfulness of his SALN during the years in question?” he said.

Villaruz continued to present documents related to the Taguig properties of the Chief Justice. He also testified about the assessed and market values of Corona’s properties.

A tax declaration for the McKinley property is under the name of Ma. Charina R. Corona, according to document presented by Villaruz to the court.

Senator-Judge Miriam Defensor-Santiago reminded the defense of shorter methods of presenting public documents. “Public records are prima facie evidence. We don’t need to go over this one by one because it will take time,” she chided.

Private Prosecutor Jose Benjamin Panganiban takes the stand for the prosecution. The witness is further asked about the tax declaration of the Chief Justice.

Senator-Judge Aquilino Pimentel III clarified the issue on the provision of the Local Government Code regarding duties of assessors in the declaration of real properties. It will be recalled that former Senator Aquilino Pimentel, Jr., the father of the current senator, is the father ot the local Government Law.

Prosecution also asked if Corona filed a declaration of the value of property. Villaruz answered that he did not know of any. Senator-Judge Alan Peter Cayetano asked more classificatory questions of the prosecution and defense panels, specifically about the fair market and assessed values of properties.

Enrile interrupted and said that the discussion on property values is irrelevant, and the only material thing is whether the Chief Justice was accurate and faithful in his SALNs.

During the cross-examination, Panganiban attempted to pin down Corona for the non-declaration in his SALN of the acquisition cost, or the value of the properties when he bought them.

Panganiban said Corona “never filed any sworn statement on the actual values” of these properties, which the Local Government Code requires the chief magistrate to do so.

Villaruz, however, said he has “no knowledge” on the acquisition cost, since only the tax declarations on Corona’s properties were summoned by the Senate impeachment court. The defense witness also admitted that the assessed values are usually lower than the acquisition cost.

Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tañada III, for his part, questioned why Corona never declared the acquisition costs of all his properties in his SALNs from 2002 to 2010—his years in the Supreme Court.

“Bakit walang nakalagagay na acquisition cost? Nakakapagtaka talaga kung bakit hindi nilalagay. Dito makikita na mayroon talaga underdeclaration,” Tañada said at a press conference.

On the other hand, Quezon City Assessor’s Office Officer-In-Charge Rodolfo Ordanes presented a tax declaration that shows Corona’s condo unit at the Burgundy Plaza in Katipunan Avenue had a fair market value of P921,000 with an assessed value of P276,320 as stated on the Chief Magistrate’s SALN.

He also testified that Corona’s property in La Vista subdivision in Quezon City — with a market value P3 million and an assessed value of P450,000— has been transferred to their daughter Ma. Carla Castillo.

Meanwhile, Ordanes also presented four tax declarations for a property in Xavierville Avenue Subdivision in Barangay Loyola and a tax declaration for a property in Ayala Heights, Barangay Pansol with a fair market value of P1,150,000 and an assessed value of P172,500.

Corona, in his 2010 SALN, declared another Quezon City property with a fair market value of P7,138,000 and an assessed value of P337,820.

Ordanes also presented a tax declaration that showed Corona’s condominium unit at the Burgundy Plaza in Katipunan Avenue as stated in the chief magistrate’s SALN. A total of four tax declarations was presented.

Even the senators are in disagreement on what “value” of Chief Justice Renato Corona’s properties should have been declared on his statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALN).

During Thursday’s trial, the defense and prosecution teams debated on whether Corona should have included the acquisition cost of his properties on his SALN. The Chief Justice only included the assessed and fair market values, some of which have already been affirmed by two city assessors.

Finally, the witness is discharged and the long and tedious hearing on these figures and reports was ended. It was difficult not to yawn during the hearings beginning with the Presiding Judge all the way to the last trial spectator. It seemd like Senator-Judge Ralph Recto was the only one enjoying this rattling of numbers. I know I didn’t enjoy it. I also know that a number of our readers do not.

In a long and arduos process, the defense is plotting out a strategy of laying out the groundwork of disputing the claims of the prosecution of undeclared acquisitions and ill-gotten wealth. Though this has been taken out as a basis of the complaint (Article 2.4), it would seem that Cuevas wants it clearly understood that there was no such thing. The target, it would seem, is not only to dispute the written and declared testimonies of the prosecution but public perception as well. It is noted that the battle front is not only in the Senate hall hearings but in the media as well.

I may be good with words but numbers has never been my game. All I can do is listen and learn!


Senator Sergio Osmeña III:
“Demetrio Vicente was residing in the 3,400-square meter property in Marikina City and added that it was “full of bonsai.” The said property is among the many Osmeña confirms Vicente lives in 3,400-square meter property full of bonsai that Vicente claimed he bought from Chief Justice Renato Corona’s wife Cristina. “I confirmed with certain people if he lived there and they said ‘yes, we visited him there’,” Osmeña said. “As a matter of fact, he has one of the largest collection of bonsai, kaya ang laki-laki ng lupain niya (that is why his property is so big),” Osmeña said. “He’s one of the best bonsai artists we have in this country,” Osmeña added. “He was credible; his answers, [the] consistency, he seemed to know what he was doing [and] quite sure of his facts,” Osmeña said. “Vicente was not perfect, which indicates an association with being true.”

DBM Secretary Florencio Abad:
“Since I joined the government, I have faithfully submitted my SALN. My public service records— whether in Congress or Cabinet — will bear me out that I never missed a year of filing my SALN. Everything I own and their corresponding value — whether real property, investments or even artwork and books — has been faithfully disclosed in my SALN. I acknowledge though that with respect to my real properties, I have declared their value based on the assessed value, which has been the basis of the taxes I have paid against these. This will also be reflected in the SALN that I will file in April for year 2011.” (This was said in relation to his earlier false declarations)