Get Real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 14 January 2012


Whatever may be the result of the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona, it has become crystal clear that the constitutional requirement of the disclosure of the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of all government officials and employees has been honored more in the breach than in the observance, with the biggest culprits being apparently the Office of the President, the Office of the Ombudsman, the House of Representatives, and the Supreme Court. For shame.

The point is that had the public been given access to these SALNs, the Filipino people would not only have been spared all the speculations and innuendos, but would also have been able to help fight the war against corruption more effectively. So can we please fast-track that Freedom of Information Act, and make sure that the provision on disclosure/accessibility of SALNs is part of it? If government officials are afraid of being kidnapped or robbed or whatever because their assets are made public, they should get out of  government service, period. In any case the objective of transparency to detect unexplained wealth/corruption surely has a higher priority than the concern, probably exaggerated, about personal security.

Now for some reminders as the impeachment trial of Corona is about to begin. First, impeachment is part of the delicate system of checks and balances in our Constitution, but it is a two-edged sword: It strengthens our democracy if it is perceived as a fair and impartial process, not only today when emotions are high, but from the point of view of history. But it can just as well wreak havoc on our governance if it is perceived to have been used as a bludgeon to exact obedience and “cooperation” from those unfortunate enough to be considered “uncooperative” or on the opposite side of the political fence.

Second, it wouldn’t hurt to review the history and the experience of impeachment in other countries, particularly the United States, which we use as a model, and Great Britain, where it all began in 14th-century England. In England, the practice was adopted by the fledgling Parliament, which wanted to hold the monarch’s advisers accountable. By the mid-15th century, impeachment had fallen into disuse in England, but Parliament revived its impeachment power in response to perceived excesses of the English kings.

As the story goes (from the US Senate website), impeachment hasn’t been invoked successfully in the United Kingdom since 1806, so that in 1967 there was even an attempt to repeal the procedure. (It failed.) But note:  “However, it has been long considered that there is no longer a need for impeachment owing to the scrutiny which now takes place in Parliament, the ability of the courts to deal with such matters, and the now-common practice of public officials resigning their posts in the event of being accused of improper conduct.” No such luck for us.

In the United States, impeachment is alive and well. The US Senate has conducted impeachment proceedings 19 times since 1799 (the last one in December 2010). The results: seven acquittals, eight convictions, three dismissals, and one resignation with no further action. Subjected to trial were two presidents (Andrew Johnson and William Clinton—both acquitted), one senator (expelled), one justice of the Supreme Court (acquitted), one Cabinet member (the secretary of war—acquitted), and 14 judges.

As to our current impeachment procedure, I have to say that it has so far left a bad taste in the mouth. There is the matter of the indecent haste with which the House of Representatives completed the procedure—seven hours from start (caucus) to finish (transmittal of the signed document to the secretary general)—with no recorded discussions, no copies of the proposed impeachment complaint provided the congressmen, no debate, just a PowerPoint presentation, leading a colleague to call it “impeachment by PowerPoint.”

The irony is that the House complaint excoriated Corona for his role in the Supreme Court’s voting on the petition of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez “without the benefit of a genuinely informed debate since several members of the Court had not had received or read a copy of the petition” (this they quoted from Justice Lourdes Sereno’s written opinion). Sounds to me like the pot calling the kettle black.

Another pot-kettle example, of course, is the criticism of Corona for not disclosing his SALN when a recent PCIJ report noted that only two out of 282 congresspersons disclosed their SALNs. There are others of course, so look who’s calling whom corrupt.

But these are not the only bad-tasting actions: the lies (“the President had nothing to do with it”), the flouting of rules (Senate rules forbidding discussion), the arm-twisting (Rep. Hermilando Mandanas stripped of his position).

But it is not only the House actions that leave a bad taste in the mouth. The Corona camp (or its followers) have dirty hands too: leaking out an unverifiable Commission on Audit report purportedly declaring no hanky-panky in the use of the Judiciary Fund and those stories about supposedly unexplained wealth on the part of Justice Antonio Carpio and probably unreported income on the part of Sereno.

I have said it before, and I will say it again:  whether this all ends well or ill, whether this will be considered a shining moment in our democracy or the pits, will depend on the Senate and how it handles itself. Already, Sen. Antonio Trillanes sticks out like a sore thumb. Final reminder: Political does not mean partisan