EDITORIAL - One less weapon vs graft
EDITORIAL - One less weapon vs graft
(The Philippine Star) - September 24, 2020 - 12:00am

After blocking access to the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth or SALN of public officials, the Office of the Ombudsman has found yet another means of holding back efforts toward transparency and good governance.

Ombudsman Samuel Martires told the House of Representatives on Tuesday that “living beyond one’s means” is vague and difficult to determine. He wants to put an end to lifestyle checks, as provided under Republic Act 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

To illustrate his point, Martires said a public official earning P50,000 a month might fail a lifestyle check for driving a BMW. But if the official got the car on installment at zero interest, which is pretty common these days, and he can actually afford the monthly amortization, is the official living beyond his means?

Such a case could pose a problem for graft probers. But there are many other instances that clearly indicate that a public official is living on ill-gotten wealth. Can a clerk in the Bureau of Customs, with no other sources of livelihood within the family, afford a luxury SUV? Does Martires believe the Marcoses sourced their fantabulous wealth from the fabled treasure of Japanese wartime general Tomoyuki Yamashita?

Lifestyle checks are not the sole basis for going after corrupt officials. Assets need verification, and investigators can always ask whether the official being subjected to a lifestyle check and his or her spouse or their children have other legitimate sources of livelihood. There are government officials who come from affluent families, and can even afford to donate their monthly salary from the state to charity.

Such cases, however, do not diminish the usefulness of lifestyle checks as a tool for digging up wealth stolen from the people. Such checks do not constitute the sole basis for building up graft cases. But doing away with them means one less tool for going after the corrupt. This effort is difficult enough as it is.

The Office of the Ombudsman should be harnessing all weapons in its arsenal to wage the war against corruption. Instead it is tossing out the weapons at its disposal, limited as they already are. In the case of the SALN, Martires said it “is used to malign government officials.” Perhaps he had in mind anomalies in the SALN that led to the ouster of two chief justices – Renato Corona and Maria Lourdes Sereno. Martires’ latest moves have raised concern that the ombudsman may end up lawyering for the corrupt.

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