Sereno on leave as impeachment hearings end

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Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno

CHIEF JUSTICE Maria Lourdes PA. Sereno will take a 15-day “wellness leave” beginning Thursday, March 1, according to lawyer Jojo A. Lacanilao, one of her spokespersons.

Ms. Sereno’s announced leave comes amid the conclusion Tuesday of the inquiry by the House committee on justice on lawyer Lorenzo G. Gadon’s impeachment complaint against the Chief Justice.

This prompted the committee to approve a motion calling for a show-cause order on Mr. Lacanilao, who himself had earlier informed the committee on Tuesday that Ms. Sereno has a “scheduled…wellness leave (in) March.”

“Desisyon niya, personal niya, na i-advance ’yung scheduled wellness leave niya sa March to a few weeks earlier. ’Yun ’yung desisyon niya. (It was her personal decision to move ahead her scheduled leave),” Mr. Lacanilao said of Ms. Sereno’s leave, which was initially scheduled on March 12 to 23.

But according to Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo V. Umali, who heads the committee, it was the Supreme Court (SC) en banc that “forced” Ms. Sereno to go on leave, adding that this is an “indefinite leave.”

“Kasinungalingan ’yung sinasabing wellness leave (This so-called wellness leave is a lie). It is an indefinite leave, and I hate to say it, this was because the en banc forced her into it,” Mr. Umali told reporters, reading to them a text message: “Justices said that what was agreed upon during the en banc was indefinite leave by the CJ, not just a wellness leave, as her lawyers claimed.”

Deputy Speaker Gwendolyn F. Garcia, for her part, criticized Mr. Lacanilao’s version of Ms. Sereno’s leave as “fake news.”

But lawyer Josalee S. Deinla, also a spokesperson of Ms. Sereno, said in a text message that the Chief Justice “intends to resume her post after her leave. She (has) no plans of resigning.”

Ms. Sereno is accused of culpable violation of the Constitution, betrayal of public trust, corruption, and other crimes.

During the last day of the deliberation on probable cause on the impeachment case, Mr. Umali said the “clarificatory hearings have proven that constitutional processes and mechanisms are in place and can function without causing conflict between the branches of the government.”

The hearings, which began November last year, were prolonged “due to the constraints of the availability of several key persons including the members of the Supreme Court,” he noted.

Among the justices who attended the hearings are Teresita J. Leonardo-De Castro, Diosdado M. Peralta, Francis H. Jardeleza, Noel G. Tijam, Samuel R. Martires, Mariano C. del Castillo, and Lucas P. Bersamin. Retired Associate Justice Arturo D. Brion also appeared as resource person.

During its last day, the House panel granted the motion to conduct an executive session to hear the testimonies of five psychiatrists who evaluated Ms. Sereno, namely Genuina C. Ranoy, Dulce Lizza R. Sahagun, Geraldine Tria, Maria Suerte Caguinguin, and Bernadet de Leon-Jamon. The House also granted them legislative immunity.

In a statement, Mr. Lacanilao said: “Congress’ concerns about removal from office should focus on the specific grounds stated in the Constitution, and the psychological report is not one of them.”

Mr. Lacanilao also noted that “expanding and redefining the grounds for impeachment is itself a violation of the constitutional provision.”

For his part, Deputy Commissioner Arnel S.D. Guballa of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) said that Ms. Sereno’s legal fees for the PIATCO case amounted to P32 million, as opposed to Mr. Gadon’s claim of P37 million and Ms. Sereno’s own estimate of P30 million.

“CJ Sereno substantially declared all income (legal fees) from the PIATCO case in her ITRs (income tax returns) from years 2004 to 2009, but there were certain discrepancies,” Mr. Guballa said, adding that the Chief Justice “failed to pay all the appropriate taxes.”

To this, Ms. Sereno’s camp commented that the BIR did not call her attention to the alleged discrepancies in her ITR filings.

“As government’s co-legal counsel in the PIATCO cases from 2004-2009, the Chief Justice paid a total of P8.67 million for the income earned during these years,” her spokepersons said in a statement.

Mr. Lacanilao, for his part said, “Wala pong planong magresign si Sereno when she’s preparing for this sa Senado. Doon na lang din tayo magkikita kung matapos na po dito sa House of Representatives at doon po maririnig niyo ang storya ni Chief Justice Sereno (Sereno has no plan of resigning when she’s been preparing for [her case when it reaches] the Senate. We will see each other there once we are done here in the House of Representatives and you will hear there Chief Justice Sereno’s story).”

Sought for comment regarding the anticipated trial, Senate President Aquilino Martin L. Pimentel III said his chamber is now in “preparation mode.”

For his part, Majority Leader Vicente C. Sotto III anticipates a trial soon after President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s State of the Nation Address. — main reports by Dane Angelo M. Enerio and Minde Nyl R. dela Cruz with Camille A. Aguinaldo