How to get rid of a Trillanes ‘nuisance’

Vocal Duterte critic Senator Leila de Lima is about to get arrested for drug-related charges. That would be one less political problem for the Duterte administration. Her arrest may not completely silence her but at the very least, she will not longer be able to use the Senate halls to attack the President. She will also become less accessible to the media.

De Lima’s role as Duterte’s staunchest critic, however, is set to be succeeded by Senator Antonio Trillanes. The two-termer senator has recently revived his call for the president to sign a bank secrecy waiver in relation to the BPI accounts that allegedly have around ?2.2 billion in transactions. He vowed that he will be persistent in going after the president. “Hahabulin at hahabulin natin siya,” he said an interview with CNN Philippines.

President Duterte actually has a very simple solution to this Trillanes problem: SIGN A BANK SECRECY WAIVER.

The senator promised to resign from the Senate if the president proves him wrong.

Will President Duterte do it or did he already do it?

The President has not issued a bank secrecy waiver yet that could answer Senator Trillanes’ challenge.

The cardboard waiver signed by Duterte and Cayetano was not valid. Banks only see it as an intention to waive bank secrecy but not an acceptable formal authorization to open bank accounts. A bank secrecy waiver should be a formal written permission given by the depositor to the bank and should include details as to what accounts should be covered and what details can be revealed. For joint accounts, both joint account owners should sign the waiver. A bank secrecy waiver cannot be a general declaration of the intention to allow one’s bank accounts to be opened for public scrutiny.

Presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo made a ridiculous claim that the President already signed a waiver and that it is up to the bank to release it. Certainly, a bank cannot unilaterally decide to release bank transaction details. Panelo cannot just say “the ball is on the bank to do it.” A bank secrecy waiver is a formal authorization that allows banks to disregard pertinent laws that protect privacy and confidentiality. As such, it should be completely clear and free from any vagueness.

What did the President show when he waved passbooks and showed bank certifications?

What the Duterte camp made public were the ending balances of the bank accounts in Trillanes’ accusations, not the history of transactions. What’s being sought is the history of transactions. Ending balances do not answer the allegations. If a corrupt public official keeps his loot in a bank account and decides to withdraw everything after information about the transactions in that account has been leaked, there’s certainly no way that ending balances can reveal anything about the loot. There were other accounts revealed by the President to the media but they were not related to Trillanes’ accusations.

Why is the President not suing Trillanes for all of these supposedly fabricated accusations?

The President’s followers must be feeling frustrated why the Duterte camp is not suing Trillanes yet. Unlike the President, Trillanes has no immunity from suit. He is vulnerable to legal charges that could be brought up in relation to his accusations. These charges include libel and perjury.

Salvador Panelo, the legal counsel of then presidential candidate Duterte said they would surely be suing Trillanes. That statement was around 10 months ago but until now there has been no case filed against Trillanes yet.

Is the President being magnanimous that he does not want to sue Trillanes?

Senator Trillanes suggested that the hesitation could be due to the possibility that the court may order the opening of the bank accounts involved in the accusation. He once said that the accounts would be exempted from the bank secrecy law once a libel case is filed. That’s why he even challenged the Duterte camp to file a case against him.

Junjun Binay, another politician who suffered from a Trillanes expose, filed a libel case against him and actually got a warrant issued to have the latter arrested. Is the President being too magnanimous that he does not want the senator to get another arrest warrant for libel or for other cases? It’s important to point out, though, that Junjun Binay’s libel case was regarding an alleged payoff and did not involve bank accounts that could be ordered opened by the courts. In the President’s case, there’s the possibility that the alleged anomalous accounts can no longer be protected by the bank secrecy law.

Will Trillanes really resign?

If proven wrong, nobody can be sure if he really will resign. However one thing is sure, his credibility will nosedive to the depths of the Mariana Trench. He will be ceaselessly mocked. Worse, he can be sued not just for libel but also possibly for perjury. An ethics complaint can also be raised against him in the Senate. Also, proving Trillanes wrong could empower or embolden the President’s supermajority allies in the senate to have him expelled.

Why is Trillanes not filing a case against the President if he really has the evidence to prove the President’s wrongdoings?

Senator Trillanes filed a plunder case with the Office of the Ombudsman back when President Duterte was just a candidate. The allegation was about having ghost employees when he was still the mayor of Davao City. Trillanes linked the more than ?2 billion worth of transactions in BPI accounts to this ghost employee scheme. There has been no update yet regarding this case from the Ombudsman.

Now that President Duterte is already occupying the highest position in the Philippine government, he enjoys immunity from suit. Senator De Lima challenged this immunity by filing a test case with the Supreme Court but there has been no developments yet regarding this case. For now, the President is widely believed to be safe from legal charges and only impeachment may remove him from office.

Shouldn’t Trillanes sign a waiver for his bank accounts first before asking somebody else to do so?

It certainly makes sense for Trillanes to sign a waiver first before asking the President to do the same. However, simply asking him to sign a waiver for his bank accounts is not sensible. As mentioned, bank secrecy waivers need to be specific in what accounts and details are being covered.

What if Trillanes signs a waiver only for accounts that don’t contain anything anomalous? Who can say if he really signed a waiver for all his accounts, not just for the clean some? A Trillanes waiver signing will only be mere propaganda. It would make him look good but there’s no certainty that he is really revealing everything. His critics should come up with the specific account details first and ask him to sign a waiver for it, in the same way Trillanes presented the bank account numbers, transactions, and dates when he accused Duterte.

The revival of Senator Trillanes’ call for President Duterte to sign a bank secrecy waiver is just propaganda (no case can be filed and it can’t make an impeachment case prosper). However, it’s not necessarily unnecessary. On the other hand, President Duterte’s response to the challenge of Senator Trillanes also appears to be mostly propaganda. He really needs to provide a more convincing answer. Why is he not allowing the public, especially his loyal followers, the opportunity to scrutinize those accounts that only have a few thousands in ending balances?

President Duterte’s camp should not take the challenge to sign a bank secrecy waiver as an allegation of hiding ill-gotten wealth. Instead, it should be taken as a challenge to prove that he is clean. It’s not difficult to do it if he’s not hiding anything. Assuming he already signed a valid waiver before, what’s so difficult about signing a clearer waiver now, not just a Special Power of Attorney? For the sake of this country, which FVR called a sinking ship, the noisy Trillanes should go (if he’s really just being obtrusive) or Duterte should come clean. Filipinos are most probably willing to ignore the unexplained wealth in exchange for his being truly transparent.

Attribution: Sen. Trillanes Photo


This post is supported by a writing grant from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) .