by Wilfred Avila
The last day of the Corona Impeachment Trial before Senator-Judges go on a five-week break opened on Thursday at a little after 2 pm with a poignant prayer composed by Senator-Judge Panfilo Lacson. He asked that senators be spared their own metaphoric Garden of Gethsemane when they come back to finish their work, describing it as, “the agony of acquitting a guilty man – or worse, pronouncing the guilt of an innocent person.”
The gavel banged the session open at exactly 2:12 pm with 19 Senator-Judges. Presiding Judge Juan Ponce Enrile had the Impeachment case against Chief Justice Renato Corona declared open by the Clerk of Court.
Lacson added a greeting for fellow Senator-Judge Pia Cayetano who celebrates her birthday on this special day of the hearings. Fellow senators add their greetings and Enrile adds his own to the festive greetings.
The first witness of the day was called by Lead Counsel Justice Serafin Cuevas. She is Miriam Mosuela of the John Hay Management Corporation (JHMC), Finance Manager. She was called to testify and to prove that Mrs. Cristina Corona’s earned recompense while employed by the JHMC. Prosecution opposed her testimony, saying it was immaterial to the case on hand but Enrile allows her testimony.
The Prosecution wanted to abbreviate the proceedings and admitted the document on stipulation stating Mrs. Corona’s income and benefits from JHMC. This was not allowed by the Presiding Judge as he allowed the Defense to proceed with the establishing of the identity of Mosuela. The Defense asked her particulars of her life and about the position held by Mrs. Corona while at the JHMC. She was also asked about Mrs. Corona’s salaries and benefits from the JHMC.
She testified that from 2007 to 2010, Mrs. Corona earned a total of P6,162,075.54 in salaries, benefits and allowances while she was President, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Executive Officer of the JHMC. Mosuela gave the testimony as Corona’s legal team tried to establish that a portion of the multimillion-peso bank deposits of the Chief Magistrate are not his to begin with.
The Prosecution asked whether all these income of Mrs. Corona was properly taxed and Mosuela said that she was indeed. Tax was withheld and some were tax free. That short-circuited the cross of the Prosecution and the witness was released by the Court.
The next to be called to the witness stand was former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza. The main witness for the day took the witness stand as the Defense sought to use the sale of a lot from the family corporation of Coronas’ wife to the Manila government to explain the Chief Justice’s questioned financial standing. The three-term Manila mayor had been asked to provide details of the 2000-2001 negotiations that ended with City Hall paying BGEI P34.7 million for a property on which to relocate the Sampaloc public market that had to give way to the LRT Line 2 terminal. He explained how the negotiations for the lot took place, and how it was paid. The lot was bought by the city for P34,703,800.00. Atienza says the sale was totally legal.
“The challenge called for an immediate replacement … we should have to look for a solution… the vendors were already agitated,” Atienza said. He also told the court that he directed his people to get in touch with the owners of the property on the corner of Legarda and Bustillos streets.
Atienza said they wrote the BGEI on May 13, 1999 for the property’s expropriation as a relocation site of the public market. During a meeting with Cristina and her husband, then practicing lawyer Renato Corona, Atienza said Mrs. Corona presented to him an authorization for negotiations from the BGEI board.
Atienza said the Coronas were reluctant to sell the property but were willing to cooperate with the city government when he initially offered P25,000 per square meter for the property. However, after a number of meetings, Atienza said they adjusted the offer price to P34,000 per square meter, which the BGEI accepted. The BGEI property was finally acquired by the city government of Manila at P34.7 million, Atienza added.
The Prosecution turn to cross came but said that they would need more time to review the statements and documents related to the direct examination of Atienza. However, they continued, cross examination would start in this session. It seemed, to many, that the Prosecution wanted to crucify the former Mayor for the sale forgetting the definite focus they had which was the actual crucifixion of the Chief Justice.
Senator-Judge Jinggoy Estrada took the podium and said that it was not the job of the Mayor to meet with the owner of a property in behalf of the city. This cames after Private Prosecutor Renato Samonte, Jr. pressed Atienza about how he knew it was Mrs. Corona who handled the BGEI property.
Atienza said Corona and his wife negotiated the sale of BGEI’s sole property in Sampaloc, Manila to the city government, avoiding the expropriation of the lot. A cheque of P34.7 million was paid to Corona’s wife, Cristina, in trust for BGEI.
With the impeachment trial going on a 6-week break, the impeachment court is left in suspense as Senator-Judges asked how the BGEI money can explain Corona’s bank accounts.
Senator-Judge Panfilo Lacson asked the Defense that if the money was not Mrs. Corona’s and was only held in trust, might not this amount properly not appear in the Chief Magistrate’s Saln. Lead Counsel Cuevas replied that they have not gotten that far as yet.
Edvicious Cruz, a dear friend says that, “Lead prosecutor Neil Tupas Jr. said Cristina could have ‘misappropriated’ the funds for BGEI” it was published in one of todays papers. That’s funny, the prosecution is saying this money is not hers which is what the defense has been saying all along, hence, not declared in the SALn of the Chief Justice. Is it theirs or not? When you say “misappropriated” you’re saying getting money that does not belong to you and keeping it for yourself. If the money is still there, then where’s that conclusion coming from? But there is now an admission by the prosecutors that it is not theirs or at the very least, was not theirs. Looks like even the prosecutors are beginning to see it the defense’s way.
The much expected face-off, after several years of bitter estrangement, between Liberal Partymates Drilon and witness Atienza was ready.
The gallery buzzed when Drilon stood up to raise clarificatory questions, since his feud with Atienza, who had invited him to the LP in 2003, was of public knowledge. With Drilon, it seems old wounds never heal. He felt that this was his moment for his come uppance.
Drilon asked clarificatory questions to Atienza. He grilled Atienza about how the Manila City government handled the transaction and how he met Mrs. Corona and the Chief Justice. Atienza replied about the difficulty in closing the deal and when there was a break in the negotiations, he decided to meet with the couple. Drilon said there was “lack of due diligence” in the purchase because the cheque was directly paid to Mrs. Corona rather than the BGEI.
It was then that Lito Atienza answered Drilon and met his attack headon. He mentioned the reason for his decision regarding the sale and proved his the strength of his character and rattles off his association with Former President Joseph Estrada and not having changed his allegiance even with the installation of Former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. This was an obvious tirade against the lack of character of Drilon who is known for changing his allegiance to whoever is in power. He further adds that he did his best for the City of Manila and that the Commission on Audit even confirmed the deal by not questioning it again.
Drilon went back to his seat not having won the fight. He really should just have kept quiet because he entered it with baggages to begin with.
Lead Defense Counsel Serafin Cuevas then showed documents related to the capital gains tax which was numbered and accepted by the court.
Prosecution said that they would have to examine the documents and needed more time because all this came as a surprise to them. They ask for continuance to cross and the Court allows it.
Senator-Judge Loren Legarda asks questions directed to Cuevas. She asked wether the Chief Justice would amend his SALN come April 15 (since SALNs of government officials, employees are to be filed by that date); Cuevas said that he would have to clarify the matter with his client.
Close friend of Atienza Senator-Judge Sergio Osmeña III asked questions of the Prosecution.
Senator-Judge Joker Arroyo reminded the Prosecution that if the money from the BGEI sale went to the BGEI or even to Mrs. Corona, how then could this be reflected in Chief Justice Corona’s.
The reply of Lead Prosecutor Representative Neil Tupaz shocked most people who were present at the Impeachment trial. He nonchalantly said that “Cristina could have ‘misappropriated’ the funds for BGEI.” The gall of this man to say anything like that, much less think it, is totally beyond me. This statement showed a great lack of character and serious flaw in his lack of the law!
Senator-Judge Ralph Recto then takes the podium and asked about the PSBank withdrawal of P34.7 Million on December 12, 2011 and wanted to know if it was the BGEI money. He is the Senator who prides himself in knowing the numbers …. supposedly.
Defense Lead Counsel Justice Serafin Cuevas says that they would explain the money in time and asked Recto to wait for the presentation.
Recto faced the Prosecution and asked them the same and seemed to agree with everything the private prosecutor said including that Mrs. Corona might have taken the money belonging to the BGEI. Recto seemed to be agreeing with the prosecution.
This is what took the cake for Cuevas. He testily replied that, “The only concept you have is the concept from the prosecution!”
Enrile tried to keep order by saying, “Let us keep cool.”
Cuevas could not be stopped. Even his son (who is part of the defense Panel) was being kidded by the panel to stop his Dad. He laughingly replied, “Pabayaan mo siya. Kaya niya yan!” Everyone who heard that remark laughed.
And true enough, Cuevas went on to say that the clarification must come from prosecution and underlines that it wasn’t their evidence to begin with. It was the prosecution’s! It’s unfair for Defense to be asked to explain on Prosecution’s evidence, he added.
Cuevas’s appeal, high-pitched at one point as he debated with Recto, was triggered by a flurry of questions from several senators. They wondered aloud where the money that Mrs. Cristina Corona received, on behalf of the family corporation Basa Guidote Ennterprises Inc. from Manila City Hall for a Sampaloc land sale, had gone. The innuendo from some of the Prosecution and Senator-Judges got very ugly at some instances.
The Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc. (BGEI) became the cliffhanger in the Impeachment Trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona.
And it ended with a plaintive plea by the Chief Defense Counsel, former Justice Serafin Cuevas, that the senators refrain from forming a judgment at this point, based mainly on evidence presented by the Prosecution, since the defense has yet to finish its turn on May 7 when the trial resumes.
The opening prayer of Senator-Judge Lacson rings true at the close of the hearing notwithstanding the angry exchanges, those who had followed the historic trial since January 16 brought home with them for the long Lenten break the last part of the opening prayer of Senator Lacson:
“And whatever is the outcome of this trial, we pray that the accuser and the accused, and all the participants in this painful exercise, will learn to forgive and forget all the harsh and cruel words said and heard, for the sake of our beloved country and Your children in this part of the world. All these we ask in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, Amen.”
Immediately, there was a magical change of mood in the hall. Even Presiding Judge Juan Ponce Enrile banged his gavel three times to emphasize his glee at the close of the trial.
There was much shaking of hands except Drilon with Atienza. The feud continues despite the underlying message of the Lenten season. Everyone headed for the closest door to go off to their different destinations while the Senator-Judges, Prosecutors and the Defense Panel all went off to everywhere but the Senate Hall in their minds the following week!
The Impeachment Trial will resume upon the resumption of the session of Congress on Monday, May 7, 2012. See you then folks!