MANILA, Philippines >> Senators fired the Philippines’ Supreme Court chief justice Tuesday for failing to declare $2.4 million in bank accounts in a politically colored trial that has reinvigorated President Benigno Aquino III’s campaign to clean up the government.
Chief Justice Renato Corona was appointed by Aquino’s predecessor, who is under hospital arrest in a vote-rigging case, and he has called the effort to oust him a threat to democracy. He said his omission was not an impeachable offense and that a 1974 bank privacy law protects foreign deposits from disclosure, while prosecutors argued the constitution mandates a full declaration of assets for someone in his position.
Corona is considered fired and barred from public office after senators voted 20 to 3 to convict him on charges of betraying public trust and violating the constitution.
Corona testified last week that it wasn’t only him who is on trial and challenged all 188 lawmakers who impeached him to disclose their dollar accounts — but there were few takers.
Reacting to his conviction, Corona said that he was innocent and that "bad politics’ prevailed in his trial. But he suggested he was ready to accept his fate.
"I have not committed any wrong," he said, but added that "if this will be for the country’s good, I am accepting the difficulties we’re going through."
The nationally televised, five-month-long proceedings gripped the nation like a soap opera, with emotional testimony, political grandstanding and a sideshow family drama.
Prosecutors, most of whom are Aquino’s allies from the lower House of Representatives, argued that Corona concealed his wealth and offered "lame excuses" to avoid public accountability.
Corona said he had accumulated his wealth from foreign exchange when he was still a student. Rep. Rodolfo Farinas, one of the prosecutors, ridiculed the 63-year-old justice, saying he "wants us to believe that when he was in the fourth grade in 1959 he was such a visionary that he already started buying dollars."
"It is clear that these were excuses and lies made before the Senate and the entire world," Farinas said in Monday’s closing arguments, adding that Corona had declared in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth less than 2 percent of what he actually owned.
Addressing not only the senators but a public hungry for transparency in a country where corruption is endemic, the rich and powerful rarely prosecuted and a third of the population of 94 million lives on $1 a day, prosecutors sought to discredit Corona’s defense with references to a lifestyle beyond the means of most Filipinos.
The prosecution asked if Corona was so rich, why did he need a loan for a car, and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile quizzed that if Corona had nothing to hide, why the failure to declare all his assets, as mandated by the constitution. Corona’s lawyer Serafin Cuevas cited a threat of kidnapping and extortion.
Farinas said the big lesson in Corona’s conviction was that even the high and mighty in government could fall if they commit any wrongdoing. "This is a victory for justice," he said.
Aquino, the son of revered democracy icon and late President Corazon Aquino, won the 2010 election on a promise to rid the Philippines of corruption. His immediate target was former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her inner circle that includes Corona, who was appointed by Arroyo shortly before she stepped down.
"This is not about vendetta," said Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, a close adviser to Aquino. "This is about strengthening the institutions of democracy, the institutions of check and balance."
He said the conviction "shows that this country can dispense justice. This encourages people to avail of a judicial process that works even if the accused is a big fish."
Abad hoped it would also "spark a bigger investor confidence in the Philippines because commerce thrives in an atmosphere of good governance, stability and predictability."
Renato Reyes, head of the Philippines’ largest left-wing group, Bayan, said the impeachment offered a measure of accountability but "is not a cure-all for corruption nor a quick solution to the problem of judicial reforms."
Cuevas said Corona may consider fighting the conviction at the Supreme Court, an uncharted territory that could push the Philippines toward a constitutional crisis. Enrile said the impeachment verdict was final and cannot be appealed.
Corona has already questioned the legality of the charges against him, but the Supreme Court did not rule on it.
This is the first impeachment process to be completed in Philippine history. The trial of former President Joseph Estrada on corruption charges in 2001 was cut short when prosecutors walked out and triggered the country’s second "people power" revolt, toppling him.
There was no sign of restiveness in the military this time and protests were limited.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.