‘It’s a laughable move by desperate people,’ says the camp of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno
MANILA, Philippines – Lawyer Larry Gadon on Friday, January 26, filed a graft complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno for alleged non-filing of Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs).
Gadon filed the complaint before the Department of Justice (DOJ) instead of the Office of the Ombudsman which usually has jurisdiction over high salary grade officials like the Chief Justice.
In his 3-page complaint, Gadon said that Sereno’s missing SALNs during her time as a professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) violates Section 7 of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, and Section 8(a) of the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees. Both require the disclosure of assets through SALNs.
Sereno can only be removed by impeachment, and in an earlier interview, Oriental Mindoro 2nd District Reynaldo Umali recognized that as an impeachable officer, filing a criminal suit against Sereno is a grey area due to the theory of immunity from suit.
“Those violations do not matter until or unless she is removed, so we cannot file administrative, criminal or even civil cases because she has immunity, she cannot be removed unless she is impeached,” Umali said.
Acknowledging that, Gadon said in his complaint that he is filing the criminal suit anyway to “toll the running of the prescriptive period for the offenses charged.”
Sereno’s spokesperson, Jojo Lacanilao, said of the complaint, “It’s a laughable move by desperate people.”
Legally, in filing the complaint, Gadon wants to stop the countdown of the prescription period.
But is he still too late? Graft has a prescription period of only 10 years and the last year that Sereno allegedly committed an offense was in 2006, which is over 11 years ago.
“Sereno only filed her SALN for the years 1998, 2002, and 2006,” Gadon said, citing the UP College of Law and the Office of the Ombudsman.
Both offices told the House committee on justice, which is hearing the impeachment complaint against Sereno, that they retrieved only one SALN each.
On the part of the Ombudsman, it found only Sereno’s 1998 SALN, while UP found only Sereno’s 2002 SALN.
Based on the Chief Justice’s Personal Data Sheets submitted to the committee, Gadon claimed that Sereno worked in UP from 1986 to 2006, or for 20 years.
“That means she did not file her SALNs 17 times!” he said.
Sereno’s camp said the 1986 to 2006 time frame of the Chief Justice’s stint in UP “sounds about right.”
In a letter to the justice committee, the UP Human Resources Development Office (HRDO) explained that Sereno was mostly on leave from 2001 to 2006, specifically:
- June 1, 2000 – May 31, 2001
- June 1, 2001 – May 31, 2002
- November 1, 2003 – May 31, 2004
- June 1, 2004 – October 31, 2004
- November 1, 2004 – February 10, 2005
- February 11, 2005 – October 31, 2005
- November 15, 2005 – May 31, 2006
The UP HRDO said that Sereno resigned on June 1, 2006. The office noted, however, that it had no record of Sereno securing the permission of UP to “engage in a limited practice of the profession.”
In 2004, Sereno started working as one of the private lawyers for the government in the high-stakes and controversial Philippine International Air Terminals Company Incorporated (Piatco). She was done with that project in 2009, before she was appointed SC Associate Justice in 2010.
Whether or not Sereno was given clearance to work elsewhere while on leave from UP was no longer relevant, said Lacanilao.
“There was no disciplinary action against her. Wala namang angal ang UP. Pangalawa, ‘nung nagresign siya ng 2006, binigyan naman siya ng clean bill of health – she was given full clearance – so ano ‘yung relevance noon tungkol sa pinag-uusapan natin ngayon?” Lacanilao told Rappler in a brief interview on January 17 on the sidelines of the impeachment hearing.
(There was no disciplinary action against her. UP didn’t call her out. Secondly, when she resigned in 2006, she was given a clean bill of health – she was given full clearance – so what is its relevance to what we’re talking about now?)
What about her SALNs from 1986 to 2000?
“Kung hindi po makita, ang UP ang hanapan natin ng SALN na yun. Kasi si CJ will not be able to gather the records from 20 years ago. Let UP find where it is, pero tingin ko rin, they are beyond their requirement to keep the records anyway kasi 2006 pa umalis, 10 years man yung kanilang responsibility baka tinapon na nila, let UP answer it,” Lacanilao said.
(If it cannot be found, let’s ask UP for those SALNs. Because the Chief Justice will not be able to gather records from 20 years ago. Let UP find where it is, but I think they are beyond their requirement to keep the records anyway, because she left way back in 2006. They are only responsible to keep it for 10 years, maybe they’ve thrown it away, let UP answer it.)
Another spokesperson of Sereno, Josa Deinla, said: “UP only certified that they had one SALN on file. This does not mean that she filed only one SALN.”
Lacanilao said that Sereno’s critics is playing up the SALN issue in order to compare it to the SALN problem that ousted her predecessor, the late Renato Corona.
“But there’s a fundamental difference. The issue with Corona is that he was convicted because the senators saw there was money that he hid, or money he did not declare in his SALN,” Lacanilao said in Filipino.
In a political context where officials’ wealth are constantly scrutinized, Sereno’s in-and-out stint from UP that resulted to missing SALNs may create a perception of hidden earnings. Lacanilao did not agree.
“Corona had dollar accounts – there’s a finding, we’re not making it up. While Sereno, when she became justice in 2010 and up to now, all her wealth has been declared. She doesn’t have any hidden wealth,” Lacanilao said.
DOJ instead of Ombudsman
Under the Ombudsman law, the office takes jurisdiction over public officials cognizable by the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan, or officials with Salary Grade 27 and higher.
“Considering that the offenses charged were committed by the respondent while she was still a law professor at the UP College of Law, with salary grade lower than SG27, and therefore outside the exclusive original jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan which covers national and local officials classified as Grade 27 and higher, the complainant files this complaint-affidavit before the DOJ,” Gadon said.
In an earlier interview, justice committee chairman Reynaldo Umali recognized that any supposed violation covered by criminal law does not have a bearing on the impeachment hearing for now. – Rappler.com