• Will Chief Justice Sereno and Comelec Chairman Bautista go?

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    RICARDO SALUDO

    WHAT a mess we’re in.

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    If the person once closest to him is to be believed, the head of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) tasked with ensuring the free, fair and orderly voting and the accurate tabulation of ballots, understated his assets by more than four-fifths.

    Then, the Chief Justice presiding over the highest court in the land, our fifth-highest official, allegedly forged several Supreme Court resolutions, making them appear to have been approved by the justices meeting en banc.

    So, besides the Bureau of Customs allowing hundreds of kilograms of shabu slip in through a no-inspection lane reserved for importers with impeccable records, and a national penitentiary that cannot keep even convicted drug lords under 24/7 guard from plying their banned trade, we may have dishonesty at the very top of the Comelec and the judiciary.

    In plain terms, contraband gushes through our ports, criminals have their way in our prisons, and those charged with maintaining the integrity of elections and the rule of law have allegedly transgressed honesty and legality.

    Let the investigations begin
    Before judging Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista and Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, of course, there must be impartial investigations untainted by political agenda. So, let’s hold it right there with the finger-pointing.

    Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre 2nd ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to probe Bautista after the chairman’s estranged wife Patricia gave the NBI bank documents purportedly showing assets of about P1 billion, several times more than the P176.3 million listed in Bautista’s 2016 statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALN), required of all people in government.

    The agency he led before being appointed Comelec head in 2015, the Presidential Commission on Good Government, is also looking into Bautista’s actions as PCGG chairman. And both chambers of Congress may conduct their own investigations. Plus, the taxman: The Bureau of Internal Revenue will investigate as well.

    There is no investigation of CJ Sereno, but two impeachment petitions have been filed against her, one by the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC), which supports President Rodrigo Duterte; and another by lawyer Larry Gadon, who landed among the top 24 in last year’s senatorial race.

    If at least one lawmaker endorses the petitions, and they comply with the documentary requirements for such complaints, the House of Representatives might then hold hearings on the allegations against Sereno. Besides falsification of Supreme Court resolutions, she is accused of violating laws against extravagance in government, as well as failing a psychological test for judges.

    If the charges are true, resign
    Let’s make this simple for both officials and the nation pondering their fate.

    First, Bautista: If he has concealed anything like five times his declared SALN assets, he should spare the nation, the Comelec, and his family further aggravation and an agonizing waste of time by quitting now.

    Anyone violating money laundering and asset declaration laws at that scale does not have the integrity and honesty to be the highest official tasked with conducting national elections with fairness, accuracy and democracy. Period.

    And with the dirt that will be unearthed in various investigations (again, assuming Bautista has hidden, unexplained wealth), his reputation would be so damaged, he would not have the moral authority to lead even a barangay, let alone a constitutional commission. Indeed, his law and executive career may also sink.

    Of course, if all can be explained and there is really nothing anomalous and illegal, then things should be so easily and clearly presented in a half-hour presentation to the NBI.

    But if Bautista’s accounts are too complicated to lay out in 30 minutes, then critics would cry deception, and most people would believe them.

    So, Mr. Chairman, the choice is clear: Tell all in 30 if there’s nothing amiss, or quit and hope they all leave you alone after a negotiated settlement with Patricia, the taxman, and maybe the PCGG.

    As for the Chief Justice, let’s just focus on one charge—the alleged falsification of Supreme Court resolutions—since the Constitution does not require psychological tests for Supreme Court justices, the luxury bulletproof SUV can be sold if deemed extravagant, and SALN mistakes can be corrected sans penalty.

    So, if in fact CJ Sereno had caused resolutions to be issued in a deceptive way, falsely presenting them as approved by the Supreme Court en banc, is that a grave enough offense to warrant ousting the highest judicial official?

    Going over impeachable offenses, that kind of documentary dissembling does not seem to fall under treason or corruption. But is it betrayal of public trust?

    What’s a few bogus resolutions?

    For all public servants, every act and policy must have legal basis—a documented or otherwise proven expression of the sovereign will of the people authorizing the action.

    Thus, every centavo spend must be covered by specific provisions in the General Appropriations Act (GAA) passed by Congress, the only body empowered to decree the spending of public funds.

    That’s why the Disbursement Acceleration Program of President Benigno Aquino 3rd and his Budget Secretary Florencio Abad was deemed illegal for allocating state money to “PAPs [programs and projects]not found” in any relevant GAAs.

    What if an official falsely authorized expenditures with bogus budget provisions, making it appear that Congress legislated the spending? That would be ground for his removal and prosecution for falsification and malversation.

    Now, Chief Justice Sereno is accused of falsifying Supreme Court resolutions that require en banc approval, much like the hypothetical official who faked GAA provisions purportedly approved by the legislature, but never was.

    In her alleged offense, she repeatedly had resolutions issued supposedly with the en banc approval they required, but in fact never got. If that accusation is true, should she be ousted?

    If such bogus resolutions are no reason to remove her, then what’s to stop her from falsifying Supreme Court decisions, making the public and all officialdom believe that 15 justices deliberated the cases and voted this way or that, but never actually did?

    Indeed, what a mess.

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