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Sereno denies hidden wealth, open to lifestyle check

If requested, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno will allow herself to undergo a lifestyle check to refute allegations raised against her in an impeachment complaint declared “sufficient in form and substance” by a congressional panel, her spokesman said yesterday. MIGUEL DE GUZMAN/File

MANILA, Philippines —  If requested, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno will allow herself to undergo a lifestyle check to refute allegations raised against her in an impeachment complaint declared “sufficient in form and substance” by a congressional panel, her spokesman said yesterday.

In a text message, spokesman Carlo Cruz also stressed the allegations raised against Sereno were not an impeachable offense.

She has no plans of resigning, Cruz added, as she is ready to face the impeachment case against her filed by another lawyer.

“It’s not being considered by the Chief Justice even as an option at this point,” he said, referring to calls for Sereno to resign.

The House committee on justice on Wednesday voted to declare the impeachment case filed by Lorenzo Gadon against the chief magistrate sufficient in form and substance, but rejected another submitted by Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC).

In an interview yesterday, Cruz said the SC chief did not hide her earnings from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal III expropriation case in her statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) as alleged in the impeachment case against her.

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He stressed that the legal service fee earned by the Supreme Court chief in the arbitration case involving Philippine International Air Terminals Co. (Piatco) was a “matter of government record” and “never concealed.”

“She never hid it. The taxes for that earning was paid and during the time that she earned it up to the time she entered the Supreme Court, she has invested in some properties like a rest house,” he explained.

Sereno worked in the legal team led by retired SC justice Florentino Feliciano in the arbitration case involving the NAIA III expropriation.

Records from a case involving the payment of attorney’s fees in the case, which reached the Court of Appeals, showed that Sereno earned at least $336,287.66 or more than P16 million for her legal service.

Non-inclusion of assets in his SALN was the same ground for the historic impeachment of chief justice Renato Corona by congressional allies of the previous Aquino administration.

Cruz argued Sereno need not even declare her Piatco earning in her SALN.

“These fees were earned four or five years before she stepped into the Supreme Court. I don’t think it’s reasonable to declare all your earnings prior to becoming a public official,” he stressed.

Cruz said Sereno’s lawyers have documentation of her earnings prior to her stint in the high court and these would be delivered to Congress.

He declined to discuss details of Sereno’s defense before lawmakers.

“We will answer the allegations at the proper time,” he said.

Law firm picked

Cruz bared that a legal team likely headed by Alexander Poblador, founding partner of the Poblador Bautista & Reyes law firm and former lawyer of Sens. Panfilo Lacson and Grace Poe, will defend Sereno in the impeachment proceedings in Congress.

“None of the allegations rises to an impeachable offense. The complaint against her seems designed to maximize the political spectacle, with the goal of eroding her credibility through innuendo and malicious allegations,” Cruz earlier said in a statement.

“This is detrimental to the independence of the judiciary upon whom all citizens rely to defend their rights and to check any abuse,” he pointed out.

He reiterated the Chief Justice’s earlier pronouncement that she “has always lived a modest, God-fearing lifestyle” and has not violated any law.

Sereno is accused of culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust over alleged undisclosed assets in her SALN.

She has also been accused of extravagant spending of judicial funds, especially with her purchasing a P5-million Toyota Land Cruiser and traveling first-class in her foreign trips. The Land Cruiser is the transportation of choice of many congressmen, senators and government officials. President Duterte himself is often seen on TV in a bulletproof white Land Cruiser.

The complainants also cited as basis Sereno’s order in 2012 to reopen a regional constitutional administrative office (RCAO) in Cebu without the collegial approval of the Court. The SC later revoked the order.

Colleagues of Sereno in the high tribunal earlier granted the request of the complainants for the release of court documents and records to support their charges against her.  

Double standards

Rep. Edcel Lagman, one of the lawmakers who voted against Gadon’s and VACC’s impeachment complaints, said congressmen-allies of President Duterte have shown double standards in handling the cases.

He said administration allies “played the dual roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in accepting the complaint of Gadon and rejecting the one submitted by VACC.

“This split personality charade tried to minimize the clear agenda of the supermajority of pursuing the impeachment of Chief Justice Sereno,” the opposition congressman said.

Like the VACC complaint, he said the Gadon petition should also have been dismissed because “the complainant has no personal knowledge of the allegations in his complaint, even as the attachments were mostly newspaper accounts which are considered hearsay.”

Lagman voted for dismissing the two complaints against Sereno.

Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, who also voted for dismissal, said both petitions “lack sufficiency in form and substance.”

“The allegations therein, even if taken singly or altogether, do not amount to such culpability, gravity, seriousness or grossness that necessitate or call, politically and morally, for the impeachment of Chief Justice Sereno,” he said.

He said the accusations Gadon leveled against Sereno “do not rise to the level of impeachable offenses as contemplated by the 1987 Constitution.”

“The impeachment complaint, from the utter want of sufficiency in its form and substance, reveals itself as nothing but a maneuver by the administration and its allies to undermine the judiciary and its leadership,” he stressed.

“The impeachment of CJ Sereno would further weaken the high court’s independence and impartiality. The impeachment complaint overstretched and trivialized the grounds cited by the Constitution, such that it would create a more dangerous situation where impeachable public officials would be removed not based on substantial or serious grounds, but on flimsy grounds, mere hearsay evidence and intrigues within the court,” he added.

Zarate pointed out that the ouster move against the Chief Justice “is a signal to the whole Supreme Court that each justice is as good as removed if she/ he criticizes or contradicts President Duterte and his actions or policies.”

Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez has boasted that he has at least 200 House members supporting the oust-Sereno move. Only fewer than 100 are needed to send the Gadon complaint to the Senate for trial.

Administration allies have told reporters that senators should now prepare to try the Chief Justice.

They admitted that the fact that most of them are supporting the impeachment move shows that President Duterte wants Sereno ousted. 

Resign

For Gadon, Sereno should resign, as congressmen would just “tear her apart” and humiliate her during the hearings on the complaint.

“If I were Chief Justice Sereno, I will just resign to avoid the humiliation and all the inconvenience of this impeachment trial… She better think it over. You cannot [stop] members of Congress from asking questions, questions that may even be off-tangent just to attack her. They will really tear you apart,” Gadon told ABS-CBN News Channel.

He claimed that he has strong grounds to convince congressmen to impeach her and send his complaint to the Senate for trial.

Gadon is identified with the Marcoses and former president and Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

He denied that President Duterte or former senator and defeated vice presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was behind his complaint.

Congressmen-endorsers of his petition have told reporters that Duterte supports the ouster move against Sereno, whom the President has repeatedly criticized.

Duterte’s principal ally in Congress, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, has said he could get the signatures of 200 of his colleagues to send the Gadon complaint to the Senate for trial.

Gadon claimed that just like Corona, the Senate would convict Sereno and remove her from office.

 

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