One of two impeachment raps vs. Chief Justice Sereno hurdles House panel

Updated to include statements from the spokesperson of Chief Justice Sereno.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 13) — Only one of two impeachment complaints against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno hurdled the proceedings at the House Justice Committee on Wednesday.

Voting 30-4, the panel found "sufficient in form and substance," the August 30 case filed against Sereno by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon.

As a next step, House Justice Committee Chair Reynaldo Umali said the panel would submit to the plenary its report and resolution within the prescribed 60 session days or by March 2018.

The four lawmakers who voted against the impeachment complaint were Representatives Kaka Bag-ao, Carlos Zarate, Kit Belmonte, and Rav Rocamora.

Bag-ao and Zarate said the charges against Sereno were based on hearsay and newspaper clippings.

"If we based on how we treated the (Rep. Gary Alejano) complaint, if these are based on newspaper reports then I think these are clearly hearsay, and we should not, sabi nga natin (as we said) this proceeding should not be used as a fishing expedition proceeding," Zarate said.

Umali, however, said the impeachment complaint filed against Sereno is "far different" from the case filed by Representative Alejano against President Rodrigo Duterte, which was dismissed on May 2017 due to insufficiency in form and substance.

Umali said Gadon's complaint was backed by authentic documents, and the committee is ready to furnish copies to the public and opposing lawmakers.

"In this particular case we have a private complainant in the person of Attorney Gadon who did his homework. While he may not have personal knowledge, he appended to his complaint authentic records and that is what is lacking in the Alejano complaint," Umali said.

Related: SC grants release of documents on Sereno impeachment

The House impeachment rules state that complainants must have personal knowledge of the allegations cited in the complaint for it to be sufficient in form.

The vote in favor of Gadon's complaint as sufficient in substance followed after Umali cited rules in impeachment proceedings as stating that the basis for this is the statement of facts and the support for these facts.

"Ang importante po sa pag consider nito ay merong recital of facts. If there is a recital of facts constituting the offense and merong nakalagay dun na kung ano yung mga grounds, and the grounds defined under the constitution"

[Translation: The most important thing here is there is a recital of facts. If there is a recital of facts constituting the offense and we can see what the grounds are, and the grounds are defined under the constitution.]

Lawmakers opposed to Gadon's complaint said it was insufficient in substance, saying some of Gadon's charges against Sereno were administrative matters internal to the court.

They also saw no supposed misdeclaration in Sereno's Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net worth, since the huge legal fees Gadon mentioned were received by Sereno for a case she worked on before joining the judiciary.

Representatives Bag-ao and Zarate added that Gadon was unable to cite specific constitutional provisions to prove Sereno's culpable violation of the Constitution.

"Malinaw dito na talagang we overstretch 'yung grounds na nakasaad sa ating Saligang Batas para managot ang ating impeachable officials," Zarate said.

[Translation: It's clear here that we really overstretch the grounds provided in our constitution to hold impeachable officials accountable.]

The 1987 Constitution states the House of Representatives "shall have the exclusive power" to initiate impeachment proceedings against the President, Vice President, members of the Supreme Court, members of Constitutional Commissions such as the Commission on Elections or the Commission on Human Rights, and the Ombudsman.

Gadon's complaint was endorsed by 25 members of the House of Representatives before it was forwarded to the justice committee.

Chief Justice denies allegations

After the House Committee on Justice decided to recognize the Gadon impeachment complaint, the Chief Justice denied all allegations hurled against her, in a statement released by her spokesperson.

"We maintain that, contrary to the findings of the House Committee on Justice, none of the allegations in the complaints is true. For this reason, we respectfully submit that the complaints cannot be considered sufficient in both form and substance," according to a statement released by her spokesman, lawyer Carlo Cruz.

The statement said the Chief Justice is just awaiting a copy of the complaint, and will file her response to the Committee.

"These would include our concern that many of the allegations in the complaints are unsupported by evidence or rely mainly on hearsay consisting of newspaper clippings," Sereno said.

In an interview on CNN Philippines' News Night, Sereno's spokesman Atty. Cruz claimed that in Gadon's complaint, there is not enough evidence to substantiate impeachment.

Cruz added the allegations regarding some 'deviations' from internal proceedings in the Supreme Court are not impeachable offenses.

"Our hope is that somehow, they would employ a higher standard of evidence for purposes of these proceedings, not because it's mainly Sereno who is on trial here… but it is the position of Chief Justice," Cruz claimed.

 

The chief magistrate is given 10 days to respond to her impeachment case.

Second case dismissed

Meanwhile, the House panel dismissed the other complaint against Sereno, filed by Dante Jimenez of Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) and Eligio Mallari of Vanguard of the Philippine Constitution last August 15.

Only five lawmakers voted that the case was sufficient in form, while 28 said otherwise.

"The democracy won. And so the complaint is deemed insufficient in form and therefore dismissed for the same reason," Umali said.

The objectors said the complaint was not verified, as prescribed by the Lower House's rules of procedure in impeachment proceedings, although it was endorsed by 16 lawmakers.

"Talagang improper 'yung verification (It's really improperly verified). There was no statement that this complaint is based on personal knowledge," Zarate said.

House Majority Leader, and chairman of the House Committee on Rules Rudy Fariñas also said the 19-page document was not properly notarized.

The dismissed complaint said Sereno should be ousted for orders and appointments that were not approved by the Supreme Court, including granting foreign travel allowances to her staff without the high court's nod.

Gadon complaint

In the remaining impeachment case, Gadon accused the Chief Justice of violating the Constitution, corruption, betrayal of public trust, and other high crimes - grounds for officials to be impeached under the 1987 Constitution.

Gadon said Sereno violated the Constitution when she falsified orders and resolutions of the high court, misdeclared her wealth in her Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net worth (SALN), and manipulated the Judicial Bar Council, among others.

It added Sereno is a corrupt public official and "used public funds to finance her extravagant and lavish lifestyle," citing the purchase of a P5-M Toyota Land Cruiser 2017 for her personal use.

She is also accused of using government funds to stay in luxurious hotels and bring a "huge entourage of lawyers in her supposed official foreign trips."

Sereno committed other high crimes, the complaint read, when she ordered Muntinlupa judges not to issue arrest warrants against Senator Leila de Lima, who is now detained over drug charges. She also ordered Court of Appeals justices to question the Lower House's processes before the high court, the complaint said, on top of not paying appropriate taxes and lying in her application for the judiciary by overstating her credentials.

Finally, the complaint said the Chief Justice betrayed public trust when she "attacked" several pronouncements of President Rodrigo Duterte - including the declaration of martial law in Mindanao - and appointed officials without the approval of the Supreme Court en banc.

Related: De Castro, two more justices to testify against Sereno - impeachment complainant

CNN Philippines' Amanda Lingao and Joyce Ilas contributed to this report.