The Philippine Senate ousted the country’s top judge for illegally concealing his wealth, ending a four-month impeachment trial and boosting President Benigno Aquino’s campaign to clean up the government.
Senators voted 20-3 yesterday to convict Chief Justice Renato Corona, 63, who was accused of hiding a fortune beyond the limits of his salary. Corona told the Senate on May 25 he had $2.4 million in previously undeclared bank accounts. The chief justice earned 21.6 million pesos ($499,000) in salary and benefits from 2002 through last year, court budget officer Araceli Bayuga told the impeachment court in March.
Corona’s ouster will advance Aquino’s anti-corruption agenda and allow his two-year-old administration to focus on expanding the economy, increasing state revenue by implementing reforms and achieving an investment-grade debt rating by the end of his term in 2016. Aquino has said ousting Corona, whom he accused of favoring his predecessor Gloria Arroyo, is a crucial step in ridding the country of corruption.
“The conviction signals that he has control of both houses of Congress and if you extrapolate that, then it bodes well when he needs to pass certain bills,” said Euben Paracuelles, a Singapore-based economist at Nomura Holdings Inc. “The next big one, and probably more important than Corona in terms of perception among investors, would be the cases against Arroyo.”
Corona was the former chief of staff of Arroyo, who is under hospital arrest for alleged election fraud. Arroyo appointed 12 of the nation’s 15 Supreme Court justices, including Corona.
The 23-member Senate court ruled the chief justice broke the law when he failed to declare accounts that he claimed were protected by a bank secrecy law. After convicting him of the charge, the senators decided not to rule on additional allegations that Corona was unfit for the position and that he favored Arroyo. The law requires at least 16 votes for a conviction.
The House of Representatives impeached Corona in December, paving the way for a televised trial in the Senate that has gripped the nation since mid-January. Hearings were suspended for about a month. Corona testified last week that aside from his dollar deposits, he has 80 million pesos ($1.8 million) in local bank accounts.
“The verdict is a step forward in terms of restoring public confidence in our courts,” Aquino’s spokeswoman, Abigail Valte, told reporters. Aquino has 90 days under the law to nominate Corona’s replacement, she said.
With Corona’s removal, investors concerned by “inconsistent and unpredictable” court rulings will take another look at the country, said Budget Secretary Butch Abad, who is also Aquino’s political adviser.
Moody’s Investors Service yesterday raised the outlook on the nation’s foreign-currency debt rating, at the second-highest junk level, to positive from stable, citing improved fiscal management. Legislation to amend excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco will boost revenue, Moody’s said.
“Lawmakers can focus again on the legislative agenda,” Paracuelles said. “The sin-tax bill is important and if Congress can really pass it this year, then this will be very good. The potential for credit-rating upgrades will improve.”
The verdict may force other Arroyo appointees in the high court to rule more fairly on cases against her, said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila. “It will have a chilling effect on Arroyo’s court allies, some of whom may feel there’s a chance for them to be ousted too,” he said.
Corona said he will accept the conviction even as he reiterated his innocence. “Bad politics prevailed,” he said in a statement yesterday from Medical City where he has been confined since May 22. “The accusations against me are untrue.”
Arroyo appointed Corona to the Supreme Court in 2002 and promoted him to be the country’s top judge a month before her term ended in 2010, a move that Aquino said was designed to shield her from prosecution. Before his trial, Corona vowed to remain in office and accused Aquino of undermining democracy by trying to appoint his own judges to the court.
Corona accused Aquino of fabricating evidence and persecuting him for a Supreme Court ruling that handed control of a sugar estate owned by relatives of the president to a group of farmers.
“He chose the path of concealment and he has lost his fitness to remain in office,” Senator Franklin Drilon said during yesterday’s ruling.