House panel finds sufficient grounds for Sereno impeachment

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Updated with statements from Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno's spokesperson

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 5) — The impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno has enough bases, the House Committee on Justice ruled on Thursday.

Voting 25-2, the panel said the August 30 case filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon contains sufficient grounds to oust the chief justice.

"The chair hereby declares…that the complaint alleges sufficient grounds for impeachment," House Justice Committee Chair Reynaldo Umali said.

Only Dinagat Islands Rep. Kaka Bag-ao and Quezon City Rep. Kit Belmonte said the complaint should be declared lacking in bases, saying it is not backed by sufficient evidence.

They also wanted the committee to discuss and vote separately on each of the 27 allegations mentioned in the complaint.

"If we go one by one, we can go over all the points and I am confident that we would not find any sufficient grounds," Belmonte said.

Umali said detailed discussions of the complaint's sufficiency in evidence will be discussed in the next step – the determination of probable cause. Gadon will be asked to support his allegations through evidence and witness accounts.

If the committee finds probable cause, it will send a report to the plenary. A vote of at least one-third of the members of the House of Representatives, or 98 out of the 292 incumbent congressmen, can start an impeachment trial at the Senate.

Meanwhile, the committee refused to take action on letters sent by Sereno's legal counsel requesting permission to cross-examine witnesses in the next hearings.

The lawmakers said the letters were addressed to Umali, not the committee, and is therefore not written in proper form. They agreed to send it back to Sereno's camp.

Sereno's spokesperson Aldwin Salumbides, who attended Thursday's hearing, told CNN Philippines the complaint is not substantial, adding they are hoping for a "more fair and impartial" process.

"Meron nga kaming pakiramdamam na baka hindi maging patas ang magiging labanan dito sa House of Representatives. Gayunpaman, we remain optimistic, umaasa pa rin kami that in the course of their hearings and deliberations, e magkakaroon ng mas tamang pagtrato dun sa mismong laman ng reklamo," Salumbides said.

(Translation: "We feel the fight at the House of Representatives may not be fair. However we remain optimistic, we still hope that in the course of their hearings and deliberations there will be a better treatment of the contents of the complaint.")


Four grounds, 27 allegations

In the 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.

He listed 27 allegations.

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 million 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.

The committee found Gadon's complaint sufficient in form and substance on September 13.

Sereno denied the allegations, and asked for the complaint to be junked.

Heightened pressure

On top of Sereno's troubles, she is also being threatened by President Rodrigo Duterte with another impeachment complaint.

Duterte on Thursday said he will file another impeachment case citing Sereno's failure to declare in her SALN her earnings as the government's private lawyer in the case involving Philippine International Air Terminals Company - the builder of NAIA Terminal 3.

This is the same allegation in Gadon's complaint.

Also, the President would have to wait another year to file another case.

Under Section 5 of Article XI of the Constitution, "no impeachment proceedings shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a period of one year."

He said he will also lodge a case against Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales.

Carpio-Morales, and Sereno have voiced disagreements to some of Duterte's policies and pronouncements, including his bloody war on drugs.

"The pressure is being stepped (up) against our Chief Justice. And this is something the CJ Sereno doesn't deserve," Salumbines said.

CNN Philippines' Joyce Ilas contributed to this report.