Palusot, palpak, pulitika

Our unfinished business

a different judgment day (SC file photo, 2011)

TODAY, May 29, marks the first time that the Senate as an impeachment court will vote to convict or acquit a high government official. It should mark as well the day we all commit to focus on our unfinished business – transparency, accountability, and good governance in all agencies and by all public officials, without exception and across all branches and political parties.

Whatever comes of the vote, the decision of the 23 senator-judges will simply close the book on the case of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato C. Corona at the impeachment court. But the impact, the fallout, and the injury that the case has inflicted on public institutions, how we hound crooks and grafters, and how politics and governance converge and clash, will haunt us a while longer.

The prosecution and defense panels have posited their cases on a multilayered mosaic of issues and arguments.

First off, on the level of facts, the prosecution said Corona himself had admitted that he failed to disclose about P80 million and another $2.4 million of monies in his peso and dollar savings accounts. This “pattern of lies” and “palusot,” the prosecution says, renders Corona “morally unfit” to remain in office. Corona, the prosecution averred, admitted he had failed to truthfully and fully disclose the facts of his wealth, but only after he had been so exposed to have lied. Needless to say, it was Corona and the defense panel, and not the prosecution that proved this most important fact in the trial – the chief justice had made grave omissions of the facts of his wealth in his SALN.

On the other hand, also on the level of facts, the defense said the prosecution had fudged and hyped reports on Corona’s alleged 45 properties and over $10 million in 82 bank accounts. The prosecution, the defense said, had been proved to have lied as well.

Second, on the level of law, the prosecution said the SALN law should be clear enough to the chief magistrate himself – he should have reported all, and not just 2 percent or a sliver of what he has now acknowledged to be his total assets.

On the other hand, also on the level of law, the defense reasoned out that Corona was barred from disclosing his dollar monies and co-mingled peso funds, and that such omission of material facts in his SALN was made “in good faith.” The omission, the defense said, is one repeated in the SALNs of nearly all-senior government officials, which also do not reflect any dollar assets entries.

Still on the level of law, the defense noted that apart from being flawed, the documents on the supposed wealth of Corona were procured through means not fair or illegal from a “little lady” or sources who remain phantom entities to this day, and in the case of the dollar bank accounts, not authenticated and thus not yet admitted in evidence. Indeed, even before Corona faces judgment today, the prosecution has been judged in most quarters to be, in a word, palpak.

By all indications, a guilty verdict is the most logical, if indeed the facts should trump all concerns about any apparent missteps, infractions, and breaches of the law and legal procedures on procuring evidence. A reversed appreciation of the issues would likely yield a vote for acquittal.

Too, a guilty verdict may come despite the imperfect and poorly framed articles of impeachment filed by 188 House members after a mass-signing event on Dec. 12, 2011, and even as the bulk of the documentary evidence submitted in court were obtained through subpoenas of the Senate impeachment court, and not through the diligent labors of the prosecutors.

Yet clearly, the Corona case is not a mere facts-versus-law, or a facts-plus-law equation. To both the senators and the citizens, the discourse has also ventured into the realms of politics and public opinion.

On these two levels, however, few objective and clear measures as much as personal value judgments and preferences could drive and define one’s vote. Sadly, it could happen that some senator-judges who are even now prepping for reelection, or the election of their surrogates, in May 2013, may cast their vote largely for politics and public opinion.

Whatever happens, it’s a cinch that either way, convicted or acquitted, L’Afaire Corona will have exacted its serious toll on public institutions, and the campaign for good governance and accountability in the country.

After today’s vote and the telenova is over, a number of true, hard facts and choices will hound us for a while longer. And these are the issues that after today’s verdict, the President, the Congress, the judiciary, and most important of all, the Filipino people will have to focus on some more.

For one, compliance with and enforcement of the SALN law by all senior public officials, notably by the prosecutors and members of the House of Representatives who have to this day mostly refused to disclose copies of their asset records. Their lame excuses that the Constitution has not anticipated at all – they are not the ones on trial, disclosure could subject them to “diversionary” inquiries by the media, and they are so busy with the impeachment they could not attend to multiple requests filed by the PCIJ and many other media agencies.

Corona takes his oath before former President Arroyo

We can do well with an Ombudsman that will now also assert its right to pry open the bank and tax records of all public officials, not just Corona, and be as dogged and diligent in its investigation of the Ampatuans, the Arroyos, and even the political allies of President PNoy now facing charges in the Sandiganbayan.

Even better, the Ombudsman may hopefully now proceed to revoke a memorandum order of her impeached predecessor, Merceditas Gutierrez that imposes unreasonable restrictions on the disclosure of SALNs to citizens and the media.

For a second, should Corona be convicted, what legal or financial relief and restitution can the Filipino people actually look forward to, other than his perpetual disqualification from public service? If either Ombudsman is truly on her way to finding probable cause, or the Bureau of Internal Revenue has built a case for tax evasion, should not the people expect as vigorous pursuit of criminal and civil charges against him, after he is impeached?

Reported rivals? Corona and Assoc. Justice Carpio (SC file)

For a third, what happens now to the Supreme Court and all the big lectures by the Executive about “daang matuwid” in the judiciary, or its wish for a court vested with integrity, independence, and probity? Despite the feigned civilities between and among the justices, the impeachment trial has exacerbated the splits in a high court already riven by political loyalties, personality differences, and yes, ambition. Whoever is appointed new chief magistrate, whether an insider or outsider, he or she will have to contend with a deeply divided – and highly politicized – high court.

Clarity of purpose and vision must also be demanded now of the President and Congress: What indeed is a so-called “independent” court? What guarantees that any missteps big or small by the next chief justice, or the other justices, will not earn them an impeachment suit? And what guarantees do we have that by simply decapitating the head of an agency, it will soon tread the “daang matuwid,” even as many other parts or parties in the same agency are not any less pure or honest, or are, by many accounts, more dishonest? From 1989 and to this last day of the trial, the Supreme Court and the entire judiciary have refused to disclose their SALNs, in rank defiance of the Constitution and the law.

Finally, what happens now to the epic “daang matuwid” project of the Aquino administration, especially toward senior government officials that include not just its political rivals but also its allies?

Or was the path of least resistance taken by Merceditas Gutierrez – who was also impeached by the pro-Aquino Congress but later yielded and resigned at a meeting with President PNoy – also a preferred mode of settling allegations of graft, incompetence, and betrayal of public trust? Gutierrez now lives in relative ignominy and peace, because she simply faded out and away. No scores or accountabilities settled. In contrast, Corona, because he refused to resign, has had to face the full wrath of the executive agencies that had been marshaled to investigate his real properties, and tax and bank records, as well as that of his closest kin.

To be sure, the impeachment trial also exposed the flabby underside of some executive and integrity agencies, notably the House of Representatives, the Land Registration Authority, the Anti-Money Laundering Council, the Ombudsman, and the Commission on Audit – they could be so bad with numbers, excitable with documents, and less than diligent with research, data-gathering, logic, and analysis. Yet again, most of the same agencies, led no less by the House prosecutors, are always so quick to peddle their tales to score brownie points with the media.

In the meantime, over the last five months, a cost-benefit study of the impeachment trial, in terms of not only of public funds but also of public services used, wasted, and neglected, must be in order. It would seem like the trial has so consumed the Executive and the House of Representatives, equally pressing and important public concerns have been relegated to the sidelines, including the power outages in Mindanao, the conflict between revenue versus the environment and ancestral domain rights in the mining sector, the rights and welfare of workers, as well as a number of proposed legislation that the Executive has certified to be urgent (i.e., reproductive health bill, sin tax bill, Freedom of Information Act, revisions to the Anti-Money Laundering Law, among others.) While the Senate has moved with dispatch on the FOI, the House committee on public information and House leaders have been too slow to act on it. The irony of it all: Many House members are supposedly wary of a provision in the PNoy-endorsed bill on the mandatory online disclosure of SALNs, even as they had filed suit against Corona for non-disclosure of his SALNs.

In the Constitution and anti-graft laws, the principles are crystal, absolute, firm – transparency, public accountability, and good governance are state policies and goals that should be blind to partisan political loyalties and interests. Strong, independent, honest public institutions are what could guarantee that whichever political party is in power, we could live out and live by these principles.

But we have so politicized our conversation on corruption, we take anti-corruption campaigns as internecine episodes of the incumbents getting even with their predecessors, or of the present administration exposing the evils of the past, or of political rivals prancing about before the cameras, but also, quick to compromise when the accused yields ground and feigns remorse and contrition.

The lessons of the Corona trial should not be lost on the citizens most of all. The show is over, and now we must take to task all our public officials, and demand of them full, faithful, and prompt compliance with the SALN and integrity laws, even if it pains them, or even when no one is looking or prodding them to behave. It would be wrong to think we were just spectators in this project called good governance.

Twice before at the EDSA people power revolts in 1986 and 2001, we were all so involved and engaged, but only on the three or four days of the protest rallies. And soon enough, after we had ousted the despot or heel we did not like then, we repaired back to our daily lives, disengaged, and left the business of government to politicians.

Today, whatever verdict comes out of the Senate, we mark simply the end of the Corona impeachment trial. Today also, we must decide as well to take back control of our continuing sad saga as a people, and deal with the impact, the fallout, and the injury on our institutions that the trial leaves in its wake. We must also serve notice to government and all our political leaders that we are their bosses, and we expect them to henceforth be fully transparent, without exception, and to be more honest and more accountable with our money, so they could be more deserving of our trust and respect, and votes in May 2013.

Initially published on our blog.

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