POSTSCRIPT / May 31, 2012 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Tactical blunders seal conviction of Corona

SELF-INFLICTED: Listening to the senator-judges explain their votes at the conclusion Tuesday of the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona, one gets the feeling it was the accused who convicted himself.

Many senators, including Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile who presided over the 44-day trial that began Jan. 16, noted the sloppy preparation and performance of the prosecution panel.

It was widely noticed that the prosecution brought in hurriedly assembled charges and exaggerated claims, then just went fishing for evidence using summons of the impeachment court.

The bungling of the prosecution led by Rep. Neil Tupas Jr.  could have been fatal had not the defense – burdened by its having the country’s top lawyer as client — blundered on key tactical points.

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WHO TO THANK?: Aware of its lackluster performance, the Tupas team could not bring itself to celebrate with a victory party after the impeached Chief Justice was pronounced guilty by a 20-3 vote.

Tupas, still dreaming of a senatorial slot in the Liberal Party slate for 2013, turned to congratulate the faceless “people” for supporting them, he said, in bringing down the chief magistrate.

He should thank instead the Chief Justice and his defense team led by former justice Serafin Cuevas who, jointly and severally, brought upon themselves that crushing defeat in the hands of amateurish lawyers.

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TACTICAL BLUNDERS: These big blunders of the defense overshadowed the prosecution’s bungling that was still in the minds of the senator-judges and the public jury in the gallery and outside:

* Calling in Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales as a hostile witness, presumably to expose her as a liar in reporting that the Chief Justice was hiding several bank accounts teeming with millions of dollars.

* Corona’s walking out without permission after the senators patiently listened for three hours to the sob story of his Calvary and how President Aquino and his attack dogs, one of them in the Senate, have been hounding him and his commingled family.

One wonders if it was Corona himself or Cuevas who came up with the not-so-bright idea of summoning the Ombudsman to the witness stand.

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HOSTILE, INDEED: Seasoned litigation lawyers will tell you the perils of calling to the witness stand somebody beyond your control, and asking him/her questions whose answers you are not sure about.

A former colleague of Corona in the High Court and known to have been at odds with him on some issues, Morales certainly was/is beyond the control of Cuevas or whoever may be assigned to examine her.

To the consternation of the defense, Morales came equipped with a PowerPoint presentation showing graphically what she said were 82 secret bank accounts of Corona bulging with as much as $12 million.

Her data, in living color, may not be entirely correct nor their sourcing and verification airtight – but at that point, who could say?

While the defense was confounded, the audience was credulous, it seemed.

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NO COUNTER: Because Morales was presented as a defense witness, although admittedly hostile, Corona’s lawyers were hard put to disown, deny, dilute or disprove information she was presenting.

The prosecution that brought her before the court was not in control. And it was too risky to ask her more questions since her answers might even make matters worse.

Cuevas’ team had no contrary documents to put before the senator-judges and the viewers of the live TV coverage. How could the defense have countered or deadened the impact of Morales’ presentation?

No wonder it was the top story in the evening TV news and in the morning papers the next day.

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EXPOSED TO FIRE: After the Ombudsman’s presentation, the defense could no longer escape presenting the Chief Justice. Only he could show that Morales’ bombshell was a dud or at least not as deadly as it seemed.

The defense wanted to avoid exposing the Chief Justice to the scrutiny and sniping of the senators known to be part of the Yellow crowd, but pressure for him to testify mounted.

The blunder of calling the Ombudsman as a hostile witness had spawned another blunder – a forced move – that of making the Chief Justice testify under oath and opening him to unfriendly fire.

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DAMAGE REPAIR: Returning to the stand gave Corona a chance to repair the damage of his improperly walking out on the Senate court days earlier and to follow up on crucial points in his testimony.

It was also to be a stage for reiterating his call for all officials of consequence, including President Aquino, to sign a waiver on the secrecy protecting their peso and foreign-currency deposits.

He was to try salvaging his first waiver-signing that fell flat after he attached a condition that it would be effective only if Sen. Franklin Drilon and the 188 congressmen behind the impeachment charges signed the same waiver.

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BIG FISH: But his followup appearance developed into quicksand when several senators asked him about the 82 dollar accounts reported by the Ombudsman.

While he countered that his dollar accounts were not 82 but only four, he had to reply, when asked, that he had $2.4 million deposited not $12 million.

The dam broke loose. Even “just” $2.4 million was still too large an amount not to declare in his statement of cash assets. That, plus the P80 million that he said was commingled with money of family members, did him in.

Most of the senators in explaining their votes zeroed in on the $2.4 million, whose non-disclosure was to them (except for three senators) a culpable violation warranting impeachment.

As it is said, a fish is caught by its mouth. And Chief Justice Renato C. Corona is one big fish.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 31, 2012)

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