The case for confiscating Corona’s undeclared wealth
By Walden Bello
Philippine Daily Inquirer
February 20th, 2012
A comment I made to the Inquirer (Feb 17, 2012) urging the administration to initiate moves to confiscate Chief Justice Renato Corona’s undeclared wealth prompted a number of comments, one of which was from a reader who asked if that would not be prejudging the result of the impeachment process and thus subverting it.
But before I answer, a few facts are in order. And when it comes to the case of the Filipino people versus Corona, contra factum non esse disputandum, as the Romans put it: one cannot argue against the facts. It is clear by now that Corona deliberately concealed the magnitude of his wealth from the citizenry. He did not declare two of seven properties and grossly undervalued the rest. The difference between Corona’s claim of P18,436,980 for his declared properties and their actual acquisition cost of P47,047,731 —as revealed by documents presented at the trial—is a whopping P28,054,951.
Moreover, in his 2010 SALN (Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth), Corona declared a cash balance in five bank accounts of P3,500,000, but evidence presented at the trial showed a total of P31,752,623. This meant a yawning discrepancy of P28,252,623.
Adding up the missing P28 million+ in undeclared property and P28 million+ in undeclared income yields P56 million+. And this sum does not include the unknown sum in Corona’s dollar accounts, the subpoena for which the Supreme Court has issued a TRO, which the majority in the Senate have voted to respect.
Corona is not only a peso millionaire but a dollar millionaire, with his net worth coming to at least $1.4 million at the current rate of exchange. He may not be a Henry Sy or Lucio Tan, but this amount places him among the less than one twentieth of one per cent of Filipinos who are dollar millionaires, indeed of the minuscule number of dollar millionaires worldwide. This is not the financial profile of a senior civil servant that derives his income principally from his government salary but that of a Filipino CEO or a man of inherited wealth.
A visit to the Bellagio Tower Building that I made over the weekend revealed a world that is made for people living in the lap of luxury. “Very few people can afford to live here,” said an agent who gave me a tour of the building. When I asked him about who could afford to live in the penthouse suites, he answered, “Probably, only CEO’s, who can pay from P300,000 to P500,000 a month.” The Coronas have a three-bedroom suite at the penthouse of this superexclusive highrise condominium , which the Chief Justice valued at P6.8 million in his SALN but whose acquisition cost, as revealed by records presented at the trial, came to P14.5 million.
The Forfeiture Law
The aforementioned P55 million in undeclared income constitutes ill-gotten wealth, and according to Republic Act 1379, “an amount of property which is manifestly out of proportion to his salary as such public officer or employee and to his other lawful income and the income from legitimately acquired property” is subject to forfeiture.
But back to the question of whether the initiation of proceedings to confiscate this ill-gotten wealth does not contradict or subvert the impeachment process. The answer is no, since impeachment is merely concerned with the removal from office of a civil servant specified in the Constitution. In fact, the charge of “ill gotten wealth”—the celebrated paragraph 2.4 of the impeachment complaint—was eliminated by the Senator-Judges owing to legal technicalities posed by the Defense. Thus forfeiture proceedings can proceed on an independent track without compromising the impeachment proceedings.
But would the forfeiture process not violate Corona’s right to due process? While the revelations at the impeachment trial already sufficiently establish a substantial discrepancy in Corona’s actual assets as opposed to his declared wealth that can be the basis for forfeiture proceedings, confiscation will not be automatic. Just as in any judicial process, RA 1379 allows him to legally answer to a petition to forfeit his properties. Hearings will be conducted before the state can seize his assets. In the event that Corona can demonstrate that his real property purchases and bank deposits are in manifest proportion to his salary as Chief Justice, then the forfeiture process will stop—though in the opinion of this writer, this would be a Herculean task for the Chief Justice, given the devastating evidence.
Finally, one last question, isn’t this a “socialistic” initiative that would threaten private property. Hardly. RA 1376 is not a law passed under this administration but one that came to existence during the term of President Ramon Magsaysay in 1955, to assist that popular president’s battle against corruption. It was, in fact, RA 1376 that Sandiganbayan prosecutors resorted to to reclaim P135 million for the state in the notorious plea bargain with former AFP Comptroller Gen. Carlos Garcia. Now whether or not the plea bargain in that case was in the interest of the people is a separate issue; the point we are making here is that RA 1376 gives the state the right and power to confiscate ill-gotten wealth.
With the evidence mounting against him on just one charge, Article 2, which focuses on the non-declaration or undervaluation of assets, Renato Corona comes closer and closer to conviction and removal from office. But the state will not be through with him should he be removed. He will still have to return his ill-gotten wealth to the Filipino people–if not voluntarily, then by the force of law.
*Walden Bello represents Akbayan (Citizens’ Action Party) in the House of Representatives.