Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Five days before Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona's testimony at his trial in the Senate impeachment court, members of the House of Representatives' prosecution panel were seen in the Philippine Palace.
Caught on camera on Thursday by an Inquirer photographer were Quezon Rep. Lorenzo Tanada, Mario Bautista and Cavite Rep. Joseph Emilio Abaya.
Secretary Edwin Lacierda, President Benigno Aquino III's spokesperson, said the prosecutors had met with Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr.
Asked what the discussions were about, Lacierda said, "I don't know."
In a text message, Tanada said the meeting was over when he got to the Palace.
He said Abaya told him that the group had asked Ochoa if there was a way to verify certain information related to the trial.
"I was not in the meeting. By the time I got there, Jun Abaya was about to leave. He briefed me that they met with ES Ochoa," said Tanada, one of the spokespersons of the prosecution panel.
'See you next year'
Meanwhile, Corona, accompanied by his wife Cristina and three children, attended Mass at the Supreme Court grounds Thursday, also his second anniversary as Chief Justice. Asked by reporters what his message was to his critics, he said, "See you next year."
Corona met with his lawyers Thursday afternoon to plot their strategy when he faces the impeachment court on Tuesday.
Tranquil Salvador III, one of his counsels, said the group tackled the allegation that Corona owns 82 dollar accounts and some US$12 million in deposits. He said Corona brushed off the accusation and vowed to present contrary evidence at the witness stand.
"They'd be lucky if they could prove that he has at least four accounts," Salvador told the Inquirer after the meeting, referring to prosecutors, who are banking on a computer-generated report submitted by the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) to the Ombudsman.
A mad rush to select the most competent lawyer from the prosecution panel has ensued following the defense's announcement on Wednesday that the Chief Justice would be taking the stand next week.
The 11-member House prosecution panel is being assisted by 58 private lawyers.
The lead prosecutor, Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr., said the choices were limited to him and four others: Deputy lead prosecutor Rodolfo Farinas and the private lawyers assisting the House panel: Bautista, Arthur Lim and Jose Justiniano.
Bautista appears to have the upper hand over the other private lawyers following his skillful cross-examination on Monday of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, said sources close to the Inquirer. Bautista, the lead private prosecutor, is the managing partner of the Poblador Bautista and Reyes law office.
He first shot to national prominence when he, along with then Makati Rep. Joker Arroyo, now a senator, presented banker Clarissa Ocampo as the star witness in the aborted impeachment trial of then President Joseph Estrada.
Tupas, however, played coy about it, saying: "Any five of us can cross. We've already prepared the cross on the Chief Justice even during the six-week Lenten break. We thought that the Chief Justice is the defense's only witness, so all five of us are prepared (to conduct the cross)."
The Iloilo lawmaker, however, broached the possibility that he and a private lawyer would jointly conduct the cross-examination on Corona.
"We will decide by the weekend. We will assign by Monday," said Tupas.
Three main issues
The cross-examination by the prosecution will zero in on "three main issues," he said.
Tupas said Corona would be quizzed on his bank accounts, both peso and dollar; real properties (undervaluation and non-declaration in some of the years in the SALN); and his participation in the Basa-Guidote corporation's ownership battle between his wife, Cristina, and the latter's cousins and aunts.
Tupas said the questions to be propounded by the prosecution would largely depend on the answers of Corona during the direct examination by the defense, which precedes the cross-examination.
Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara, a prosecution spokesperson, said the prosecution hoped Corona would answer all questions posed to him and would not invoke his right to self-incrimination.
He also said Corona's decision to testify was not borne out of confidence, but of necessity. "They have no choice because there are sectors in the public that already convicted him," he said.
He said the most dramatic thing Corona could do is to issue a waiver allowing access to all his bank accounts. If he would do this, and it would be seen that there are no secret accounts, then there is a chance the Chief Justice may be acquitted outright.
Angara also said Corona could not issue a general denial because that would be a weak defense. The chief magistrate would have to be more specific, he added.
Denial weak defense
He said a general denial could not debunk the records of his bank transactions from the AMLC that formed part of the Ombudsman's testimony.
"They can disprove that but it must be a more specific denial backed up with documents," he said.
Tanada said the prosecution would not embarrass the chief magistrate.
"Of course, if he does not answer any questions, he will be put in an embarrassing position and that is not anymore the fault of the prosecution," he added.
He also said that while the prosecution was ready to cross-examine Corona, its questions would be limited by what is presented in the direct examination.
Senator-judges, on the other hand, have no limitations on the kinds of questions they could ask, he noted.
More than anything else, Corona must explain the $12 million in "fresh deposits" that the AMLC allegedly found in 82 dollar accounts that belong to him.
"The best way is to come clean and give senator-judges and the Filipino people a clear explanation why these exist and why they were not included in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN)," said Sen. Gregorio Honasan.
The Chief Justice is scheduled to testify at his own trial in the Senate impeachment court on May 22.
Honasan said the presentation made by Morales using data provided by the AMLC to prove Corona's purported dollar accounts "has the presumption of regularity" due to a waiver that the Chief Justice had signed in his SALN.
The waiver authorizes the Ombudsman to determine from other government agencies like the AMLC any assets, liabilities and business interests from the time Corona joined the government up to the present.
The dollar deposits worth $12 million that allegedly belong to Corona are not included in his SALN. Corona declared only P3.5 million in cash and investments in his SALN for 2010.
"The Chief Justice must be able to reconcile any misdeclaration, nondeclaration or exclusion of these dollar accounts with the data that the Ombudsman got from the AMLC," Honasan told the Inquirer.
Honasan said the suggestion did not mean he was "superseding my judgment over the legal strategy of the defense."
In her testimony before the impeachment court on Monday, Morales said she had asked certified public accountant-lawyers to "analyze" the data given to her office by the AMLC.
She said an examination showed that Corona kept 82 dollar accounts in various branches of five banks in Metro Manila. The AMLC also recorded a total of 705 transactions from April 2003 up to early this year.
Morales said those who analyzed also noticed increased activity in the dollar accounts during the 2004 and 2007 elections and in the week that Corona was impeached by the House of Representatives in December.
Honasan and Sen. Vicente Sotto III said in separate interviews that it was likely that questions to be fielded to Corona would focus on item two of the articles of impeachment that accuses the Chief Justice of failure to disclose certain assets in his SALN.
Mike Arroyo defense
A more skeptical Sen. Sergio Osmena, however, said that Corona might resort to the "Mike Arroyo defense" in explaining the existence of assets traced to him by House prosecutors.
Asked whether Corona would identify someone as the real owner of his alleged properties like Arroyo who claimed that the Jose Pidal account was owned by his brother Iggy, Osmena replied through text: "I couldn't think of any other reason he could use."
Sotto said Corona's lawyers have "more or less" justified the existence of Corona's high-end properties with the presentation of witnesses from condominium developers who explained the delays in the turnover of these units to Corona and his wife.
"And even the properties being traced to them that are not really theirs have already been explained. And it is obvious that the properties belong to other people already," Sotto noted.
The senator was apparently referring to the Corona property in Marikina sold to Demetrio Vicente, a bonsai artist.
Sotto said no senator-judge had indicated an intention to question Corona. "They want to hear first what he has to say," he said.
Honasan warned that Corona must brace himself for hours of questioning from prosecutors, senator-judges and his own defense panel. With a report from Christian V. Esguerra and Leila B. Salaverria