EDITORIAL: More than lip service

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Incredibly enough, the Republic of the Philippines counts over a century of existence but only recently made its first successful conviction of a tax evader. The landmark case against businesswoman Gloria V. Kintanar, who has been ordered arrested by the Court of Tax Appeals, hinged on her having evaded 15 million pesos (US$357,400) in back taxes on commissions she earned from her multilevel marketing business.

Kintanar blamed her accountants for her failure to file income tax returns in 2000 and 2001. The tax appeals court, in a decision upheld by the Supreme Court, ruled that the businesswoman knew her legal obligations but that she "nevertheless, voluntarily, knowingly and intentionally failed to file the required returns.¿

Kintanar's prosecution comes on the heels of other high-profile cases filed by the Bureau of Internal Revenue against alleged tax cheats. In November 2011, the tax court ordered the arrest of billionaire businessman Macario Gaw Jr. for supposedly defrauding the government of some 5.5 billion pesos in underdeclared income from 2007 to 2008. A bit earlier, another warrant was issued for the arrest of former military comptroller Jacinto Ligot and his wife Erlinda, also for tax evasion.

The cases against Kintanar, Gaw and the Ligots basically pivot on the same thing: dishonesty in paying one's taxes. Did any of them cry persecution when they were haled to court? They couldn't, of course; they would've been thrown out of the judge's courtroom for that laughable defence. Yet, for the same legal premise underpinning the tax evasion cases that have now been filed against Renato Corona and his daughter and son-in-law, the former chief justice has wasted no time decrying the charges as part of the government's supposed continuing campaign of vindictiveness against him.

Per Corona, not only was it cruel for the Aquino administration to come after him despite his having lost his post at the Supreme Court, it was also, and merely, a cynical game of wag the dog: "I agree with the observation of many that my family's persecution continues with the usual media overkill, and that there appears to be an immediate need to divert public attention from certain issues that are becoming too hot to handle.¿

Corona's penchant for playing victim and seeing political conspiracy in his every travail was brought to high relief during his impeachment. It did him no good then, and it will do him no good now. Instead of crying persecution, he should just confer with his defence team on how to argue his way out of the BIR's tax evasion charges, which peg his total net worth at 161.15 million pesos on a declared income of only 26.45 million pesos, as evidenced by his statements of assets, liabilities and net worth and other documents presented during the impeachment trial.

"There were underreported assets, undeclared assets, unreported cash,¿ said Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares. By the BIR's reckoning, Corona should have paid the government 120.5 million pesos in taxes, inclusive of surcharges and interests. He is being sued for "willful attempt to evade or defeat tax and for deliberate failure¿ to file his income tax returns in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2010.

Note that these figures only cover Corona's peso accounts and declared properties. His (grudgingly disclosed) dollar accounts hold another $2.4 million in deposits. That money was not declared in his Statemenst of Assets and Liabilities and are, therefore, untaxed.

Corona's daughter Ma. Carla, meanwhile, is charged with a tax liability amounting to 9.93 million pesos, and her husband, Constantino Castillo III, P20.24 million pesos.

Should the government have gone easy on Corona after his impeachment-that is, let him have his peace, as some quarters now demand-given the disgrace and humiliation he's gone through?

To answer yes to that question is not to be compassionate; it is to agree to a fundamental injustice-that the law applies differently to those (or who used to be) in positions of power like Corona. Under that premise, an ordinary citizen like Kintanar may not get away with cheating on her taxes, but a former chief justice deserves leniency, pity even, for his very public fall from grace, and subjecting him to further legal scrutiny crosses the line into "persecution¿.

In fact, the opposite should hold true: The higher you are in office, the more exactingly the law should apply. Corona was not the average Juan; he was the country's chief guardian of the rule of law. Taking him to court now is merely the ends of justice being paid, at last, more than lip service.

US$1 = 41.9 pesos

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