OPINION: How could CJ De Castro lose SALN in fire 2 years before the document was written?

Raissa Robles

Posted at Aug 31 2018 12:31 AM | Updated as of Aug 31 2018 08:53 AM

Chief Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro. ABS-CBN News file photo

This one is totally amazing. To lose a document in a fire that happened TWO YEARS BEFORE the document was written.

In 2012, when Associate Justice Teresita de Castro applied for the post of Chief Justice, she wrote the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) a letter saying she could only submit 15 SALNs (yearly Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth) documents despite 39 years of government service.

The excuse she gave was that her SALNs covering the years 1973 to 1978 “could no longer be located”.

As for the SALNS covering the period from December 1, 1978 to September 22, 1997 when she worked at the Department of Justice (DOJ) — she said they had “burned” — as she put it — in a fire that “gutted” the third floor of the DOJ building  “in late 1996 or early 1997”.

Because of this fire, De Castro said, she lost “her personal files” — including all her personal copies of her SALNs covering the period of December 1, 1978 to September 22, 1997 — when she worked at the DOJ.

There’s a problem with her excuse: the fire actually took place on December 11, 1995 and not—as she claimed – “in late 1996 or early 1997”.

The actual date of the fire has serious implications on the truthfulness of De Castro’s excuse for missing some SALNs.

How could she lose her 1996 SALN — and for that matter her 1995 SALN — to a fire that took place way before she was supposed to file them?

Let me explain.

First, a word about SALNs in general

Section 17 of Article XI of the 1987 Constitution requires all government workers from the President down to the lowliest regular state employee to file yearly SALNs.

Republic Act 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees further fleshed out this constitutional provision. But it did not specify when SALNs should be filed during the year.

The period of filing is specified in its Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR). You can see the IRR here.

Implications of required SALN filing date on CJ De Castro’s excuse for missing SALNs

In CJ De Castro’s case, the following is the pertinent provision in the IRR:

When to File
The above documents under the Code must be filed:
(1) Within thirty (30) days after assumption of office, statements of which must be reckoned as of his first day of service.
(2) On or before April 30 of every year thereafter, statements of which must be reckoned as of the end of the preceding year; or
(3) Within thirty (30) days after separation from the service, statements of which must be reckoned as of his last day of office.

Using this guideline, it means:

ONE. CJ De Castro should have filed her SALN for the year 1995 between January 1 to April 30, 1996 or AFTER the December 11, 1995 DOJ fire.

TWO. CJ De Castro should have filed her SALN for the year 1996 between January 1 and April 30, 1997 or TWO YEARS AFTER the December 11, 1995 DOJ fire.

HOWEVER, she claimed that both her 1995 and 1996 SALNs had burned down when the 3rd floor of the DOJ building was gutted. She dated the fire as having occurred “in late 1996 or early 1997”.

De Castro’s excuse for her missing SALNs, including her  date of the fire, must have been acceptable to most of her fellow justices. The main Supreme Court decision on the quo warranto case of former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno merely noted and did not question De Castro’s excuse.

This is what the Supreme Court ruling ousting Sereno said about De Castro’s missing SALNs [underlining mine]:

Conformably thereto, the following candidates submitted their respective letters as regards the submission of the SALNs:

“(a) Justice De Castro submitted a letter dated July 17, 2012 with the attached SALNs for 16 years covering the period 1997 to 2011, from the time she became an Associate Justice of the Sandiganbayan on September 23, 1997 until December 2011 as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. She also disclosed that her SALN from February 19, 1973 until November 30, 1978 which she filed during her employment in the Supreme Court, could no longer be located. She also disclosed that her personal files, including her SALNs that she filed while employed at the Department of Justice from December 1, 1978 to September 22, 1997, were among those burned when the third floor of the DOJ was gutted by fire in late 1996 or early 1997. In any case, upon inquiry from the CSC, she was told that her SALNs filed as DOJ employee were already disposed of, as it was way beyond the statutory ten (10) – year period.”

Before I go on, please note that the ponencia who penned the main SC ruling might have miscalculated the number of SALNs De Castro actually submitted in 2012. Justice Noel Tijam wrote that she had attached “SALNs for 16 years covering the period 1997 to 2011…”

The period only covers 15 years, not 16.

In fact, Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe, in her dissenting opinion, noted in a table that De Castro had submitted only 15 SALNs.

When was the fire on the third floor of the DOJ building?

CJ De Castro’s narrative on the fire actually caught my attention because it was very specific and vague at the same time. Very specifically, she said the fire at the DOJ occurred on the third floor. But she was somewhat vague on when the fire occurred: “in late 1996 or early 1997.”

I did try getting in touch with former Senator Teofisto Guingona, Jr. who was the DOJ Secretary at the time of the fire. But I received no answer.

And then I thought the story was NOT THAT IMPORTANT because anyway, De Castro was not vying to replace Sereno. So I shelved it.

Then suddenly, she was.

And suddenly, she was the new CJ.

And one major factor that led her to that position was the displacement of Sereno — on the issue of SALNs. In fact de Castro had expressed outrage, writing a 45-page document excoriating Sereno, who had been unable to produce SALNs for the years 2002-2006 because they were “irretrievable.”

In casting her vote to oust Sereno, De Castro wrote:

“The impeachment trial of Chief Justice Corona and his conviction by the Senate sitting as Impeachment Court emphasized the importance of the SALN. As Senator Francis Joseph G. Escudero (Escudero) pointed out during the JBC en bane meeting on June 4, 2012, “the JBC should impose higher standards to aspirants for the position of Chief Justice.”

The Court has repeatedly held in numerous administrative cases that court employees, from the highest magistrate to the lowliest clerk, are held to a higher standard than most other civil servants, and that every employee of the Judiciary should be an example of integrity, uprightness, and honesty.

The evidence on record shows that respondent [Sereno] was unable to submit her SALN s for 2002 to 2006 to the JBC as required for applicants for the Supreme Court Chief Justice vacancy in 2012 and she deliberately deceived and misled the JBC so as to secure her inclusion in the shortlist of candidates for the vacancy in the said position, despite her noncompliance with the SALN requirement mandated by the Constitution, the law, and implementing rules.

Considering the foregoing, respondent’s appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, secured through her lies and deception in the entries in her sworn PDS [personal data sheet] and regarding her non-compliance with the above mentioned SALN requirement of the JBC, is void ab initio, and for such reason, I vote to GRANT the Petition for Quo Warranto.”

That sounds like De Castro sets a great store on the importance of SALNs, doesn’t it? It was one of the reasons why I became curious about her own SALNs and the fire that allegedly destroyed them.

I contacted some government sources to verify exactly WHEN this fire happened.

I was very much surprised to be told initially that the fire occurred not “in late 1996 or early 1997” as De Castro  said.

But in December 1995.

However, the sources only had their recollection of the fire and no specific date of when it happened in December of 1995.

The Shield Law which protects journalists from having to disclose their sources of information protects me from having to disclose whom I had talked to.

Suffice it to say that as soon as another source gave me the specific date of December 11, 1995, I looked for other sources that would verify the date of the fire.

My sources were very clear that aside from the December 11, 1995 fire, NO OTHER MAJOR FIRE OCCURRED ON THE THIRD FLOOR OF THE DOJ between 1995 and 1997. Major enough to be covered by a foreign news agency.:

An Ateneo librarian helped me find the Associated Press story on the 1995 DOJ fire

Celia Cruz, former librarian of Business Day newspaper where I once worked, suggested I try the archives of the Rizal Library of Ateneo de Manila University.

Most fortunately, Tomas Dela Cruz, librarian in the microform and digital resources center of Rizal Library, was quickly able to locate for me a story on the DOJ fire. It was in the December 12, 1995 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

And it talked about a fire hitting precisely the third floor of the DOJ the night before.

Here it is below: [NOTE: You can view the images full screen by clicking on the diagonal arrow on the right side below the file.]

But what if there really was another fire “in late 1996 or early 1997”, as De Castro said?

This is still possible. However, the 1995 fire already affected the third floor where De Castro was then holding office. So presumably, her personal files were already affected in 1995. Unless she reconstructed those files, can her files, which were already affected in 1995, be affected again “in late 1996 or early 1997”?

If she had reconstructed the files after the 1995 fire, don’t you think De Castro would also have mentioned in her letter that there were in fact two fires in successive years; and she reconstructed her files but these were affected again? Her letter only pointed to one fire.

She still could say that the 1995 fire did not affect her SALNs but the 1996 or 1997 fire did. Then she would have to explain why the first fire had no effect but the second fire had.

Notice that I used the word “affected”. I did not use the word “burned”, as she did. Because some government sources told me that a lot of documents were not actually consumed by the flames but were  damaged by the water used in hosing down the fire.

What THIS 1995 fire means

De Castro herself, in her concurring opinion ousting Sereno, castigated Sereno for the latter’s missing SALNs.

De Castro wrote — on page 43 of her 45-page decision voting for Sereno’s ouster — that  “the mere submission by respondent (Sereno) of her letter dated July 23, 2012 to the JBC (Judicial Bar Council) — wherein she deceptively claimed that since  most of her ‘government records in the academe are more than fifteen years old,’ they are infeasible to retrieve…”

Surprisingly, De Castro had given the same kind of excuse for six of her missing SALNs. They “could no longer be located”.

There is no mention in the SC ruling that in 2012, when De Castro applied for the CJ post, she had submitted a certification from the Bureau of Fire in Manila or the Department of Justice to attest that fire at the DOJ had occurred when she said it did.

Besides, the certification might have revealed that De Castro could not account for her SALNs for 1995 and 1996.

BUT –

Here’s one thing we can draw from the SC decision ousting Sereno.

When De Castro joined the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan on September 23, 1997—after 24 years of uninterrupted government service—she had NO SALN WHATSOEVER in her possession.

Because the SALN she would have submitted by April 30, 1997 that year would have covered the 1996 period. And it is clear from the SC main ruling that De Castro did not submit her 1996 SALN. She said it burned down “when the third floor of the DOJ was gutted by fire in late 1996 or early 1997.”

So what if she had no SALNs, you might say.

Here’s why.

It’s quite unusual for a former justice department official without SALNs to be appointed a Sandiganbayan judge because this court has the sole jurisdiction for convicting government officials and employees who don’t file or lie about their SALNs.

In 2012, when she vied for the post of Chief Justice and she said her SALNs were lost in a fire and no other copies remained in other government agencies, De Castro’s excuses seemed highly believable.

However, it seems no one in the JBC thought to  ask her why — after joining Sandiganbayan in 1997 — did she not try to get certified true copies of her burned SALNs to reconstruct her personal file? Or at the very least, get a certification from the DOJ that she had lost her SALNs in a fire but the DOJ had copies?

That would have been easy to do then. Government sources explained to me that at that time, SALNs at the DOJ were filed with the personnel department which was located in a separate building which did not burn down in the 1995 fire.

This lack of interest to retrieve copies of her SALN then would appear to indicate that when De Castro was in Sandiganbayan, she did not really give SALNs the same weighty consideration that she does now. Despite the fact that other government officials and employees were being sent to jail or fined by the Sandiganbayan due to lack of SALNs.

No wonder that in her concurring opinion ousting Sereno, De Castro agreed with the opinion of Justice Antonio Carpio that – “since the government custodian is required to keep the SALNs for only 10 years, government employees cannot be required to keep their SALNs for more than 10 years. Thus, applicant for government positions, in particular, judicial positions, should not be required to submit SALNs more than 10 years prior to the application.”

Because if this had been required, De Castro would not have qualified for CJ.

This lack of SALNs, however, did not stop De Castro from turning around and castigating Sereno. According to De Castro: “Beginning 1994, respondent (Sereno) should have filed her SALNs yearly on or before April 30 of the immediately succeeding year.” As proof of non-filing, De Castro pointed to Sereno’s lack of SALNs.

Coincidentally, De Castro added:

“The root of respondent’s deceptions lies in her letter dated July 23, 2012 to the JBC.” De Castro castigated the “mere submission by respondent of her letter dated July 23, 2012 to the JBC — wherein she (Sereno) deceptively claimed that since most of her ‘government records in the academe are more than fifteen years old,’ they are infeasible to retrieve — she was already deemed to have substantially complied with the requirements and was eligible to be interviewed.”

If we apply De Castro’s standard for Sereno, her own July 17, 2012 letter to the JBC — stating that most of her records burned down — could also be castigated as a “deceptive claim.”

And yet the SC main ruling criticized Sereno’s excuse but accepted De Castro’s explanation of a fire.

De Castro’s predecessor, Sereno, was ousted due to missing SALNs. The justices ruled that SALNs were a test of her integrity. And integrity is a very important qualification for a Chief Justice.

As De Castro herself wrote in her decision ousting Sereno:

“…every employee of the Judiciary should be an example of integrity, uprightness, and honesty.”

Last April, De Castro herself became the subject of a quo warranto request. A private citizen named Jocelyn Acosta asked Solicitor General Jose Calida to also file a quo warranto case against De Castro for her 19 missing SALNs.

Calida rejected the request saying:

“The argument which the OSG (Office of the Solicitor General) propounded against Sereno does not apply to Justice De Castro since it was Sereno who was appointed as the Chief Justice without the qualifications back in 2012.”

Even though the JBC in 2012 had eventually judged that Sereno had complied with the SALN requirements — after relaxing this further to a 10-year period and accepting Sereno’s  letter as an explanation for her missing SALNs — Calida proceeded to dig into Sereno’s SALNs beyond the 10-year period.

Now that De Castro is the sitting Chief Justice, will Calida apply the same standards he used for Sereno’s quo warranto case?

Whether or not he does, among the things that CJ De Castro will perhaps have to explain before the bar of public opinion are the following:

1) When was the fire she used as an excuse for her missing SALNs? Can she prove there was a fire on the third floor of the DOJ in late 1996 or early 1997?

2) Since evidence shows that the fire occurred in 1995, how did her 1996 SALN get burned in 1995? Or two years before she even wrote and submitted it?

3) What happened to her 1995 SALN, which she was required to file four months after the fire?

What if De Castro pleads memory lapse, confusing the date of the fire?

That would be a valid excuse.

But she would still have to produce her 1995 and 1996 SALNs.

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