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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

What the impeachment case vs. CJ Corona has pointed out is the confusion arising from the unclear SALN form and the law, which have to be remedied. But discrepancies in CJ’s SALN entries do not constitute high crime punishable by impeachment. House prosecutors upset about Corona’s P21 million earned in ten years in the SC, but House members each earn P30 million a year in allowances alone, quite apart from their yearly salaries and PDAF.

Members of the prosecution panel computed CJ Corona’s assets as worth P80 million, largely based on “acquisition costs” of his properties, whereas most people base their own SALN computations on the much-lower “assessed value” as dictated by local ordinance for tax purposes. Last Thursday, the senators seemed all confused as a whole controversy was kicked up over what should be the correct entry for one’s properties in the SALN, following the testimonies of several local assessors. Should it be “assessed value,” or “acquisition cost” or “fair market value” or even “current fair market value?” No one seemed to know for sure, not even the senators.





It’s safe to bet that many of the senators also chose to compute their properties on assessed value, although they’re not telling. But the furor kicked up by the House prosecutors--- many of whom, together with their colleagues in the Movement 188, have admitted that they didn’t even file their SALNs---about Corona’s prosecution-estimated P80 million wealth is QUITE IRONIC. This is because, according to insiders, House members get an estimated P30 MILLION EACH IN ALLOWANCES ALONE YEARLY, apart from their monthly salaries and yearly PDAF. This makes CJ’s P21 million in salaries and allowances over a TEN-YEAR PERIOD, as revealed at the Senate hearing earlier this week by the Supreme Court’s chief disbursement officer, look like peanuts.





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Along comes Budget Secretary Florencio Abad himself admitting that like CJ Corona he based the computation of his properties in his SALN during his entire stint in government on “assessed value” and not the other considerations. Abad, sounding quite contrite when the revelations about his SALN were recently made by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, promised to start anew from here on and compute properly and accurately.





Maybe Secretary Abad should also convince President Noynoy to come up with more accurate entries in his own SALN. It will be recalled that a month or so ago, P-Noy’s SALN showed how his net worth suddenly shot up in 2010 to 55 percent over the previous one, and how he so undervalued his inherited Times Street property at P2,000 per sq.m. that it blew Winnie Monsod’s mind and prompted blogger Wilfred Avila to offer to buy it out. P-Noy has stonewalled explanation on these startling entries but he may find himself having to do this, should he end up  impeached in the future.





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One positive off-shoot of the impeachment of CJ Corona is the realization that all the confusion and conflicting views about SALN entries call for remedies. In fact, at the Senate trial, Senator and Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III publicly called on the Civil Service Commission to remedy the SALN forms that it mandates from all government personnel, so there can be no ambiguities. I support Sotto’s call.





The good thing is that as Sen. Ralph Recto pointed out some weeks ago, those who may have made discrepancies in their SALN entries---so long as it’s obvious that these were not committed with malice---can be given the opportunity within a given period to correct those errors. Perhaps the SALN Law should also be given another hard look by Congress.





As noted even by the defense lawyers, CJ Corona’s SALNs in the past few years may not have been all that accurate (is there such a thing as an accurate or perfect SALN? Did former CJs Rey Puno and Art Panganiban execute perfect  SALNs?), but it’s also obvious that these arose from the same confusion that bedeviled Secretary Abad and countless other government officials and personnel, AND NOT FROM MALICIOUS INTENT TO DECEIVE.





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It's easy to conclude that Corona would not be so brave as to go all the way with his impeachment trial, had his conscience not been clear about his SALN---which has become the main battleground between the prosecution and the defense. As CJ has said in various forums, he is staking everything in this impeachment case---his honor and reputation and those of his family, and his life-long career---all that he has worked for. If convicted he can never again serve in government and he would forfeit his retirement pay as well as his pension (which under normal circumstances he would begin to enjoy five years after his retirement in October 2018).





Moreover, if convicted, CJ almost certainly be slapped with various court cases by the Aquino administration, which is out to pulverize him because he led the SC’s unanimous vote vs. Hacienda Luisita and pushed for a lower pay-back to the Cojuangcos by its farmer-tenants.





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Various pressures have been exerted on CJ to resign soon after he was impeached by the House, with all sorts of accommodations promised him, just so that P-Noy doesn’t have to engage in a titanic battle with Corona (P-Noy knows that if CJ is acquitted he, P-Noy, would be reduced to lame-duck status). But CJ has chosen to fight to the finish to defend his honor and the independence of the institution he heads, so as to prevent all the branches of government falling under Aquino’s control.





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The Senate remains the last battleground in this titanic battle. If CJ had any qualms or reservations about his own innocence he would have doubtless caved in and resigned before being impeached, like former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. But instead he chose to fight on and many right-thinking Filipinos are with him in this battle.





Given the prevalent failings about SALN entries, undoubtedly mainly by the politicians, the question that comes to many minds is, would the inaccuracies in CJ Corona’s SALN constitute an impeachable crime? To my mind and those of many Filipinos, especially lawyers, it does not---for it’s clear that government agencies supposed to regulate the SALN have failed to exact and even encourage more accurate entries.





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Under Sec. 2, Article XI, “Accountability of Public Officers,” the Chief Justice, along with the two highest officials, members of the SC, the Constitutional Commissions and the Ombudsman, may be removed from office through impeachment, for “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes or betrayal of public trust.”





Despite all efforts of the prosecution to link him to graft and corruption, Corona has shown that he has earned the wherewithal, through his salaries and allowances in the SC, plus those of his own family and his wife’s family, to buy his five properties over the years. His defense lawyers admitted that there may have been some discrepancies between the fair market value of those properties and what he declared in his SALN, based on their assessed values. But the SALN law allows reconciliation of figures and CJ could do so.





What's appreciable even to non-lawyers is that definitely such discrepancies in the SALN entries don’t constitute any of the constitutional grounds for impeachment and conviction. THE SENATORS HAVE TO ACQUIT.



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