Senators fired the Philippines’ Supreme Court chief justice on Tuesday for failing to declare US$2.4 million in bank accounts in a politically colored trial that has reinvigorated Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s campaign to clean up the government.
Philippine chief justice Renato Corona was appointed by Aquino’s predecessor, who is under hospital arrest in a vote-rigging case, and has called the effort to oust him a threat to democracy. He said his omission was not an impeachable offense and that a 1974 bank privacy law protects foreign deposits from disclosure, while prosecutors argued the constitution mandates a full declaration of assets for someone in his position.
Corona is considered fired and barred from public office after senators voted 20 to 3 to convict him on charges of betraying public trust and violating the constitution.
Corona testified last week that it wasn’t only him who is on trial and challenged all 188 lawmakers who impeached him to disclose their dollar accounts — but there were few takers.
The nationally televised five-month-long proceedings gripped the nation like a soap opera with emotional testimonies, political grandstanding and a sideshow family drama.
Prosecutors, most of whom are Aquino’s allies from the Philippines’ lower House of Representatives, argued that Corona concealed his wealth and offered “lame excuses” to avoid public accountability.
Corona said that he had accumulated his wealth from foreign exchange when he was still a student. Representative Rodolfo Farinas, one of the prosecutors, ridiculed the 63-year-old justice, saying he “wants us to believe that when he was in grade four in 1959 he was such a visionary that he already started buying dollars.”
“It is clear that these were excuses and lies made before the Senate and the entire world,” Farinas said in Monday’s closing arguments, adding that Corona had declared in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth less than 2 percent of what he actually owned.
Prosecutors sought to discredit Corona’s defense with references to a lifestyle beyond the means of most of the people, who are tired of their country’s endemic corruption.
The prosecution asked Corona if he was so rich, why he needed a loan for a car, and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said that if Corona had nothing to hide, then why would he fail to declare his assets, as mandated by the Philippine constitution.
Corona’s lawyer Serafin Cuevas cited a threat of kidnapping and extortion.
Aquino, the son of the revered democracy icon and late president Corazon Aquino, won the 2010 elections on a promise to rid the Philippines of corruption. His immediate target was former Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her inner circle that includes Corona, who was appointed by Arroyo shortly before she stepped down.
“This is not about vendetta,” said Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, a close adviser of Aquino. “This is about strengthening the institutions of democracy, the institutions of check and balance.”
He said the conviction “shows that this country can dispense justice. This encourages people to avail of a judicial process that works even if the accused is a big fish.”
Abad also hoped it would “spark bigger investor confidence in the Philippines because commerce thrives in an atmosphere of good governance, stability and predictability.”