by Wilfred Avila
The thirty-first day of the Impeachment Trial rolled off to a nerve wracking start at a few minutes after two in the afternoon with 18 Senator-Judges present.
It started well-enough unti l people began to notice that one very special man was nowhere to be found in the Senate Hall. The man, Justice Serafin Cuevas, was absent! Many people wondered, albeit silently.
Soon enough we were told why. Lead Defense Counsel Serafin Cuevas was not present at the hearing on Monday due to an undisclosed illness. The Court was abuzz when Defense Lawyer Joel Bodegon informed the impeachment court that he will be acting as lead counsel of the defense team in the absence of the 83-year old Cuevas. Is he ever coming back? Will he ever get well? Is the difficulties encountered in the daily hearings taking its toll of the old man?
My dear friend Belinda Olivares Cunanan later told me: “By the way, I know that the legion of Lead Defense Counsel Serafin Cuevas missed him at today’s Senate impeachment trial, and they all got quite nervous about his being “sick” and unable to attend the trial. Well, I have good news for the legion of fans of the brilliant and articulate Justice Cuevas. Attorney Bodegon, who has taken over the lead defense counsel’s role for the moment, told this blogger as we all filed out of the Senate session hall that Mr. Cuevas is ok and was just advised to get some rest. But Mr. Bodegon said with a laugh that even if Justice Cuevas was not physically present this pm., he was monitoring the proceedings very closely. In fact, said Mr. Bodegon, the brilliant Cuevas would call up the defense lawyers from time to time this pm.” All I could do was heave a sigh of relief.
Immediately thereafter, Senator-Judge Miriam Defensor-Santiago took the podium and delivered her almost daily perorations. She gave her free legal advice to the two panels on Article 2 of the Articles of Impeachment, particularly the SALN issue, as well as the political nature of the case.
She argued that the deliberation on Article II of the impeachment case should be closed because Corona’s SALN was found to have been declared and its contents were disclosed to the public during the trial.
She further said that the impeachment court needs “to decide what is impeachable in terms of the SALN” following the presentation of the evidence. She said the Code of Conduct of Public Officials stipulates that if a person makes a mistake on his SALN in “good faith,” the action is not impeachable.
Santiago challenged the prosecution (this time quietly) to show “substantial evidence” that Chief Justice Renato Corona intentionally omitted some items on his SALN or had any “intent to show dishonesty.”
She also had something for the Defense Team. She said they had to prove that Corona declared all his bank deposits “in good faith” or if he did not, to explain why. The two sides concurred with her opinion.
Senator-Judge Joker Arroyo, following the statement of Santiago raised the question on whether a “correctible” offense was impeachable or not and challenged both the prosecution and defense teams to study the matter.
Senator-Judge Pia Cayetano on her part asked more clarificatory questions from both the prosecution and the Defense and underlined the need for them to prove and/or disprove The SALN issue! Both promised that they would.
Senator-Judge Francis Pangilinan also added some clarificatory questions to both prosecution and defense and also on the matter of the SALN.
Presiding Judge Juan Ponce Enrile simplified the matter on hand. He insisted that the crux of the matter of the entire hearing rested on the SALN and whether the Chief Justice did, in fact, file the correct SALN. He reminded everyone that there were a few glaring matters absent from the filed SALN of Corona.
I don’t know whether it is only me that felt it but I felt a change in the wind. Enrile was beginning to change his tune. He seemed to be always reminding everyone of the simplicity of the case and, yet, continuing to drive home his point that the CJ may have, in fact, violated the SALN law. It did, however, serve its purpose in reminding the Defense Team what pitfalls there may be if they did not disprove this one matter.
The trial began in earnest. Defense Counsel and Defense Spokesman Tranquil Salvador took the floor for defense. He began by asking the Prosecution to stipulate their agreement to some documents and presentation of witnesses. The Prosecution disagreed saying that they did not want to stipulate on some of the documents since they were arguing on the opposite side of the issue. The Presiding Judge allowed the Defense to present their witness related to the property documents. The session was suspended to allow the witness to come to court.
As the session resumed, Senator-Judge Franklin Drilon immediately took the podium and said that both Defense and Prosecution stipulated on several issues related to the property documents. Upon clarification from Enrile, it was noted that this was not true since the prosecution refused to stipulate. Again, is it only me? I feel that Drilon wanted to strangle the Defense into silence. Why? When proven wrong with the issue of the stipulation of evidences by both the defense and the Prosecution, he grudgingly left the podium and showed his irritance.
The Defense’s first witness was called to the stand. Mario Badillo, Makati City Assessor. He testified regarding the Columns condominium property. A short direct examination by Defense Lawyer Salvador was undertaken and there was no cross examination. Badillo affirmed the assessed and current fair market values of a condominium unit at The Columns along Ayala Avenue owned by Justice Corona. The figures mentioned by Badillo matched the declared amounts in the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of Corona in 2010.
Then Defense Lawyer Dennis Manalo presented Quezon City Register of Deeds Carlo Alcantara to prove that Corona had a “basis for the non-inclusion” of several properties in his 2010 SALN. Prosecution accepted Alcantara’s qualifications and background, as he previously testified for the prosecution.
Alcantara presented Transfer Certificates of Title showing that Corona and his wife, Cristina, had sold three properties in Quezon City worth a total of P43 million to their daughter Carla and her husband Constantino.
The witness also showed documents indicating the transfer of the title of Corona’s P8-million property in Ayala Heights to a certain Amelia Rivera and her husband, Rodel, in March 2010.
As in the previous witness, there was no cross examination. Clarificatory questions were profounded by Senator-Judges Francis Pangilinan and Francis Escudero. The witness was discharged and the session was again suspended.
At the resumption of the hearings, the Defense presented additional marked documents. The prosecution interjected that the defense could do this on their own time and not waste the Court’s time to which the defense said that they had to do it in Session to show the importance and value of the documents being presented. They were allowed by Enrile.
Defense Counsel Noel Lazaro presented Randy Rutaquio, Taguig City Registrar of Deeds, as their next witness. Rutaquio also testified for the prosecution before and testified in connection to CJ Corona’s properties in the said city.
After his testimony, the Defense ends their direct examination of Rutaquio. The session was again suspended. As the session resumed, Majority Floor Leader Vicente Sotto III suggested continuation of defense testimonies, but prosecution objected. And yet again, the session was suspended.
At the resumption of the hearings, the Court agreed to allow two more witnesses to testify. Next witness was Benz Lim, property manager for The Columns, where a condominium unit owned by the Coronas is located. Defense counsel Judd Roy conducts direct examination. Lim testified regarding the Coronas’ Columns property, specifically the payments of dues.
Senator-Judge Sergio Osmeña said that Chief Justice Renato Corona’s delayed declaration of one of his condominium units in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) was “absolutely ridiculous.”
“It (condominium unit) was paid in 2004 but was not declared in his SALN up to 2010, it is absolutely ridiculous,” Osmeña said.
He was referring to the one-bedroom, 43-square-meter unit that Corona’s wife, Cristina, bought at The Columns in Makati City in 2003.
Sen. Panfilo M. Lacson said the Deed of Absolute Sale between Mrs. Corona and The Columns’ property developer Ayala Land was signed on Oct. 1, 2004. The condominium title was transferred to the Corona couple on Nov. 3, 2004. “After the transfer, the Coronas already owned the condominium unit,” Lacson pointed out.
But according to Defense Lawyer Jose “Judd” Roy III, Mrs. Corona did not formally accept the unit until 2010 because it has been a “defective sale.”
Roy said Mrs. Corona was dissatisfied with the unit after the property developer turned the it into a storage room. He said she wanted to call the whole sale off but was hesitant to put the matter in legal terms.
“The value of the condominium is under dispute because of the defects,” the defense lawyer said.
To prove that the unit was defective, the defense panel presented Benz Lim, property manager at The Columns who showed the impeachment court a demand letter against Mrs. Corona after she failed to settle the association dues of the condominium units amounting to P112,213.79.
The defense also showed a letter from Mrs. Corona who said she was having “an ordeal through this unit… the condominium unit was used as a ‘bodega’ by the Columns Administrator. The toilet is stinking, the roof is leaking… [I have] used my own money to clean up the mess and to disinfect.”
Lim said they acknowledged Mrs. Corona’s appeal by reducing her association dues. “Mrs. Corona paid approximately P108,000… this include association dues for the next quarter,” he said.
Sen. Teofisto “TG” Guingona asked the defense whether Mrs. Corona refused to accept the unit, but Roy said the matter will be discussed in a separate set of letters that they will present at a later date.
Senator-Judge Franklin Drilon asked Lim when the key to the unit was actually given to the Coronas. Lim said he did not know since he only started working for the Ayala Land subsidiary in 2009.
The Prosecution was asked by Drilon to get more papers from the Columns Administrator. Now, wasn’t that helpful of him? As the days go on, there is little chance we can expect any semblance of fair play from Drilon at all. He even seems to be enjoying his role in this hearing to the hilt!
Just a precautionary word to all the Senator-Judges … there will be a time of reckoning for all of you in 2013 should you be perceived as not even showing a minimum of respect for the rule of law. Now, that is called helping out. Yes, I am helping you out Senator-Judges.
The Defense ended their direct examination of Bendz Lim. The Prosecution said that they would conduct their cross in tomorrow’s session.
Again Senator-Judge Osmeña took the stand and asked more clarificatory questions and delivers a left-handed admonition to the defense when he said that there might be some lies inviolved in their statements and that the Prosecution better check. More free advice to the prosecution.
Senator-Judge Ferdinand Marcos asked various questions to determine when the actual transfer of the property to the Coronas occurred. It was also to help out the defense to straighten out all the dates. he was promised that this would all be shown at a later date. Mr. Marcos seemed to be one of the very few who seemed to be asking questions in a level playing field. He is determined to ferret out the truth no matter on whose side it may be. He is, indeed, beginning to look very good. he shows the demeanor of a thinking man rather than a paid hack!
Senator-Judge Pia Cayetano asked Lim several clarificatory questions as she followed up on Marcos’ questioning. Witness Lim is temporarily discharged and court agreed to continue Defense’s presentation of witnesses in the next session.
A funny thing occurred. Bendz Lim, the 25-year old witness, started trending on Twitter and Facebook almost immediately after he took the witness stand. His boyish and good chinito looks helped spiral him and propel him into the top trending position of the two social groups. He spoke quietly and admitted ignorance on matters that did not affect him. He also showed humility but also showed that he knew his job well. He is still trending as I am posting this. Surprisingly, the trending was coming from mostly men!
As the trial progressed, the presiding Judge informs the Court that the Senate, sitting as the Impeachment Court for Chief Justice Renato Corona’s trial, on Monday denied the defense panel’s motion to cite House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II for Contempt of Court.
“In accordance with the decisions of the caucus this noon the motion of the defense is denied,” Enrile said during the day’s trial.
Enrile did not provide any explanation for the decision, but last week he said they cannot cite Gonzales for contempt because the impeachment court has no jurisdiction over him.
The defense panel said Gonzales should be cited for contempt for allegedly threatening to discipline Representatives Hermilando Mandanas, Crispin Remulla, and Tobias Tiango should they testify in Corona’s trial.
Tiangco specifically accused Gonzales of “bullying” when the latter warned him of expulsion in case the former “dishonors” his colleagues in his testimony.
During his testimony last week, Tiangco recounted how the House of Representatives allegedly railroaded the impeachment complaint against Corona. He also said there was pressure on lawmakers to sign the complaints against Corona and former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez.
The session was finally ended at 6:38 pm. Thank God! Even the surroundings of the Senate Building was enveloped in darkness as if to remind everyone to the lateness of the hour. We noticed Enrile getting testy due to the lateness of the hour.
As we were leaving the Senate building we noticed the rush of all the Senator-Judges vehicles rushing out of the Senate garage so they, too, could take some much need rush. We followed their example. Today’s hearing was tiring!
As the trial ended its 31st day, it was obvious that people were beginning to be sick. The most pronounced, of course, is Lead Counsel Justice Serafin Cuevas. A lot of people were getting sick of the very trial itself. More people were getting sick with the histrionics of some over fed Senator-Judges. Some were just getting sick….period!