MANILA, Nov 4 (Mabuhay) — The Sandiganbayan has junked the P134 million forfeiture case against the late Chief Justice Renato Corona, his widow Cristina, and their children due to lack of evidence.

Former Chief Justice Renato Corona, his wife Cristina, and children. (MNS photo)

In a 48-page decision, the court said Corona’s at least P134 million worth of peso and dollar bank deposits, as well as his real estate properties worth P17.5 million, were all legally acquired, and that non-declaration of them in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) were later rectified.

The Corona family, the Sandiganbayan said, was able to prove that the former Chief Justice had been gainfully employed for almost 45 years and that he had funds other than his lawful income in government service.

The anti-graft court also noted that Cristina is a former salaried employee and one of the owners of Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc. (BGEI) and now its inheritor, and that the Corona couple received in trust for BGEI the total purchase price of the expropriation proceedings held in 2001.

These funds were then pooled with their children, the Sandiganbayan said. 

“These enabled them to acquire real properties in their names and earn a substantial amount of cash assets. At most, respondent Chief Justice Corona may be held guilty of simple negligence for having failed to ascertain that his SALNs were  accomplished properly, accurately, and in more detail. Such an administrative case could have been imposed upon him, however, it was preempted by his death,” it said.

“Such innocuous mistakes [of failure to declare assets] may be addressed by the customary corrective action enabled by Section 10 of RA No. 6713, as in this case. While the SALN is an instrument that ensures accountability, the review and compliance procedures work as a buffer that prevents the haphazard filing of actions against public officials and employees,” the court added.

As for failure to declare these assets, the anti-graft court said such act is not tantamount to having ill-gotten wealth that should be forfeited in favor of the Philippine government.

“Such non-declarations or misdeclarations are innocuous mistakes that do not signal the accumulation of unexplained wealth, though they may signify a degree of carelessness,” the court said.

The Corona family then utilized their funds and placed them on long-term investments, peso and dollar time deposits “to grow their hard earned money.”

“Besides, it is a long jump to conclude the amount of P134 million worth of alleged undeclared cash assets just by merely adding the end amounts appearing on the subject bank accounts without considering the other money market placements,” the Sandiganbayan said.   

The Corona family’s case, the Sandiganbayan said, merits leniency since it falls under “casual, isolated, and or infrequent non declarations or misdeclarations that do not point to a scheme to mislead and defraud.”

“Despite admitting that these other sources of funds were not declared in his SALNs, it is important to stress that the issue here is not the misdeclaration of entries or filing of the correct SALN but whether or not the respondents have accumulated properties manifestly out of proportion to their lawful income or salary and thus, presumed to have been unlawfully acquired,” the Sandiganbayan said. 

“Wherefore, premises considered, the instant Amended Petition for Forfeiture under Republic Act No. 1379, filed by petitioner Republic of the Philippines, represented by the Office of the Ombudsman against respondents Renato C. Corona, now represented by his heirs, Ma. Carla Beatrice C. Castillo, Francis R. Corona, and Charina C. Salgado, and Cristina R.  Corona,   and their dummies, trustees, assignees, transferees,   and successors-in-interest, is hereby dismissed,” the anti-graft court ruled.

Corona was ousted as Chief Justice in May 2012 by the Senate impeachment court for betrayal of public trust over his failure to fully declare his assets on his SALN. He died in April 2016. (MNS)