Anti-graft office that restricted SALN access has stopped doing lifestyle checks on officials

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com

MANILA, Philippines — The Office of the Ombudsman has not been conducting lifestyle checks among government officials as chief graft buster Samuel Martires questioned the “logic” behind this.

The disclosure comes on the heels of new guidelines that restrict access to government officials' Statements of Assets, Liabilitites and Net Worth.

During the House of Representatives panel deliberation on the budget of the Ombudsman, Rep. France Castro (ACT party-list) asked Ombudsman Samuel Martires on how often the office conducts lifestyle checks on government employees.

According to the Ombudsman's own official website, a lifestyle check "is an investigation strategy developed by anti-corruption agencies in the Philippines to determine the existence of ill-gotten and unexplained wealth of officials and employees of the government."

It turns out, the Ombudsman has stopped conducting lifestyle checks, or looking at whether government employees seem to be living beyond their means.

“Now that I assumed [the post] as Ombudsman, I ordered a stop on lifestyle checks because I have long had questions, doubts on that provision of the law about lifestyle check,” Martires said in Filipino.

Martires said they intended to ask Congress to amend Republic 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, but was forced to delay it due to the pandemic. “There are really provisions there na kung hindi malabo, parang walang hulog sa logic,” Martires also said.

(There are really provisions there that if not unclear, appear  to be illogical.)

Section 4(h) of RA 6713 holds that public officials and employees and their families “shall lead modest lives appropriate to their positions and income. They shall not indulge in extravagant or ostentatious display of wealth in any form.”

Under Republic Act 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act an employee may be dismissed over unexplained wealth or when a public official acquired “an amount of property and/or money manifestly out of proportion to [an official's] salary and to other lawful income."

A matter of difference in priorities?

Martires said this may just be a matter of difference in perception of priorities. If, he illustrated, a government official with a P50,000 monthly salary purchases a BMW automobile through a loan, can it be held that he is living beyond his means?

"I don’t think so. Probably he must have distorted values, probably distorted priorities but why do we have to care? Who are we to judge this person?" He said.

The Ombudsman said there is a need to define what is living beyond means and simple living.

“What is simple living to me may not be simple living to anyone of you... We have different values. Our priorities are also different,” Martires said.

“We should change this law. We should study this because many have been victimized of this law. There are many misinterpretations of this law,” he added.

Ombudsman restrictions

Martires’ disclosure on the suspension of lifestyle checks came after he issued a memorandum restricting the access of the public, including the members of the media, to copies of the SALNs of government officials.

According to the directive, a notarized letter of authority of the concerned government official must first be secured before someone can request a copy of their wealth declarations.

Martires defended his directive and said that SALNs are being “weaponized” against political rivals.

Former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno was booted out of her seat at the SC, through a vote of her colleagues including Martires when he was a Supreme Court justice, over her supposed non-submission of SALNs.

He also said that there is a provision on RA 6713 that holds that it is prohibited to use wealth declaration documents “contrary to morals or public policy.”

The next provision however states that there is prohibition on obtaining SALNs except by news and communications media for dissemination to the general public.

But Martires noted that there is “innuendo” on reports when there is an increase on an official’s net worth. “May innuendo na may ginawa kang kalokohan e kawawa naman ang opisyal ng gobyerno na lumilitaw sa diyaryo na nagnanakaw ng pera,” he told the panel.

Among Martires’ first guidelines issued since he assumed his post was to restrict media access on cases filed and pending before his office. Announcements will no longer be made on developments of cases or investigations.

The Ombudsman also argued that the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act does not state that SALNs are needed in prosecution.

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