May 26, 2018, 8:02 pm
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Sereno lawyers barred from impeach hearing

THE House of Representatives committee on justice yesterday barred Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno’s lawyers from representing her after she snubbed the hearing of the impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Larry Gadon.

The justice panel chaired by Rep. Reynaldo Umali (PDP-Laban, Oriental Mindoro) voted 30-4 in favor of a motion by Rep. Alfredo Garbin (PL, AKO Bicol) to deny the legal team’s motion to be allowed to cross examine witnesses who will be presented by Gadon.

“If you want to speak here, you first have to become congressmen, too,” majority leader Rodolfo Fariñas told members of Sereno’s legal team who were directed to raise their concerns through panel chair Rep. Rey Umali or any member of the committee.

Before the panel voted on the motion, it also voted in favor of Deputy Speaker Gwen Garcia’s motion to prohibit non-members of the committee like opposition members Reps. Edcel Lagman (LP, Albay) and Tom Villarin (PL, Akbayan) from participating “in the interest of expeditious proceedings.”

After being rebuffed by the committee, Sereno’s lawyers left the hearing.

Fariñas said he was surprised that Sereno even raised the issue and demanded that she be accorded the right to counsel in the committee proceedings which he said is akin to a preliminary investigation in the process of criminal prosecution.

He cited the case of former Sen. Jinggoy Estrada who was not even afforded the right to cross examine when his case was at the level of the prosecutor’s office.

“That (right to cross examine) will come during trial,” Fariñas said, noting the decision was penned by Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio who said that Estrada had only   the right submit counter affidavit and be afforded the right to be present at hearings.

“In this case, this (impeachment) is not even a criminal case. It’s in the nature of an administrative case. If we allow you to cross examine, we won’t be able to bring this to the (Senate sitting as an) impeachment court,” the majority leader added.

Sereno’s camp lamented the decision of the committee, saying “it marks a sad day for the country.”

Sereno’s spokesperson, lawyer Josa Deinla, said the Chief Justice is looking forward to her trial before the Senate.

“The Chief Justice is eager to defend herself consistent with her rights and looks forward to her trial before the Senate, where she is hopeful her rights will be fully respected,” Deinla added.

Deinla also said the House committee committed an error when it denied Sereno’s request to be represented by her lawyers.

“It is difficult to understand how this rule can defeat the rights of Chief Justice Sereno to counsel when this right is enshrined not only in the very Rules of Procedure on Impeachment but also in the Constitution,” Deinla said, referring to Section 13 (2) of the Rules of Procedures Governing Inquiries in Aid of Legislation.

She further explained that there should never have been a debate on Sereno’s right to counsel since it is part of her constitutional right as well as due process to be afforded a counsel.

President Duterte on Tuesday night distanced himself from the impeachment complaint against Sereno, even daring her to investigate if he approached anyone to file or pursue the complaint against her.

The President initially declined to comment about the impeachment and said he did not want to get involved. He later said that he received information that Sereno was claiming that he was out to get her.

“Ha? Ako raw? She can ask anybody, I guarantee you. I’ll make a guarantee, magtanong siya diyan kung may nilapitan ako na sinasabi ko, ‘Impeach niyo si Sereno’” except the public… Ma’am Sereno, I’m sorry to tell you and you can investigate the whole town and i-commission mo lahat ng mga journalists who are good at investigative journalism, kung may kinausap ako na tao about your impeachment,” he said.

(“Huh? Ha? Me? She can ask anybody, I guarantee you. I’ll make a guarantee, you can ask anyone if I approached them and told them to ‘Impeach Sereno’ except the public… Ma’am Sereno, I’m sorry to tell you and you can investigate the whole town and you can commission all journalists who are good at investigative journalism, if I talked to anyone about your impeachment,” he said.)

The President said he only echoed allegations against Sereno that he had heard about like the luxurious travels that she supposedly made.

HOUSE NOT DEPRIVING SERENO

Umali said the panel is not depriving Sereno the right to cross-examine “but they (her lawyers) should do it through any of the members, including through the chair if they have anything they want to relay to the committee.”

The four lawmakers who voted against the motion were Reps. Kaka Bag-ao (LP, Dinagat Islands), Christopher “Kit” Belmonte (LP, Quezon City), Lawrence Fortun (NP, Agusan del Norte) and Rep. Ramon Rocamora (LP, Siquijor).

Citing Rule 112, Section 3 of the rules of criminal procedure which is applied “suppletorily” to the House rules on impeachment proceedings allows defense lawyers to submit written questions to the complainant.

“There’s no cross examination but a legal counsel can submit written questions. So they (Sereno) lawyers can participate,” he said. “Nowhere does it say there that the respondent has to attend.”

Belmonte reminded the panel that impeachment is a political process – “this is not simply administrative or criminal.”

“Our work is a constitutional duty. It is only right that we be liberal in interpreting our rules,” Belmonte said.

Sereno’s lawyers led by Alex Poblador said in a statement that the committee’s decision to prohibit the lawyers of the Chief Justice from attending the hearing “is tantamount to barring CJ Sereno herself, and belies their claim of an open and democratic process that honors the right to a fair trial.”

‘DO YOUR HOMEWORK’

The Umali panel proceeded with the process of determining if there is probable cause to send the complaint to the Senate for trial, grilling Gadon to substantiate his claim that Sereno committed 27 acts allegedly constituting betrayal of public trust, committed corruption, and other high crimes.

Umali at one point reminded Gadon that he should have done his homework of preparing evidence to back his claims after he repeatedly pointed to SC Associate Justice Teresita De Castro when asked to shed light on his allegations of falsification in the complaint, particularly on allegation that Sereno falsified a 2012 resolution to reopen the Regional Court Administration Office (RCAO 7) in Region 7.

The panel granted Gadon’s request for the panel to invite De Castro as a witness along with Manila Times reporter Jomar Canlas whose story he used as one of the bases of his complaint.

Bag-ao said Gadon’s admissions that he has no personal knowledge of the allegations that Sereno tampered with court documents raised doubts.

“You always point to Justice De Castro. I don’t even know anymore who the real complainant is – you or her?” she told Gadon, who admitted that he has no direct contact with De Castro.

However, while he admitted using newspaper reports in preparing the complaint, Gadon said he was also able to obtain official court records to support the allegations.

INVITE THEM ALL

As a result, Bag-ao also moved that the panel invite all the other SC associate justices as needed since they can attest or deny the allegations in the complaint. The motion was carried.

“We’ll try to manage this depending on the need of the hearings. This is not going to be a wholesale invitation to everyone because it will be difficult to manage,” Umali said.

Umali acknowledged that the SC may no longer be able to function if all the magistrates will be invited after Deputy Speaker Gwen Garcia warned that doing so “already borders on ridicule and incredulity.”

The committee also scrutinized Gadon’s claim that Sereno “deliberately tampered with and altered the contents of a draft temporary restraining order” in 2013.

Gadon claimed that sometime in May 2013, the Coalition of Associations of Senior Citizens in the Philippines, Inc. filed a petition for certiorari with prayer for issuance of a TRO before the Court, which was raffled to De Castro.

Immediately, upon review of the petition, De Castro recommended the issuance of a temporary restraining order, and sent a draft of the order to Sereno’s office, Gadon said.

Gadon said Sereno issued a “blanket TRO stopping the Comelec from making further proclamations, thus, benefitting other groups that were not party to the case.”

“It was only after Sereno endured a harsh tongue-lashing from Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, the original ponente of the ‘tampered’ TRO was the TRO rectified and re-released,” he said in the complaint.

Gadon said this shows Sereno’s “predisposition” to “unilaterally issue resolutions supposedly from the Court en banc, as if she is solely the Court en banc, has been evident early on.”

In his impeachment complaint, Gadon cited 27 acts where Sereno allegedly betrayed public trust, committed corruption, and other high crimes, particularly the untruthful declaration of her wealth in her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) – the same ground that allies of former president Benigno Aquino III used to oust then Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012. – With Ashzel Hachero and Jocelyn Montemayor


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