Whose side is the ombudsman on?

THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan (The Philippine Star) - September 30, 2020 - 12:00am

In a two-punch maneuver, Ombudsman Samuel Martires just weakened the public’s defenses against graft and corruption.

Last Sept. 1, the ombudsman issued a circular saying that copies of the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) of government officials will only be issued if: a) the person requesting is the government official himself/herself or his/her authorized representative; b) upon lawful order of the court in relation to a pending case and c) if the request was made by the ombudsman’s office. In all other cases, the SALN will only be furnished if there is a notarized letter of authority from the government official allowing the release of his/her SALN. These conditions transfer all the power to government officials. It makes their SALNs virtually unattainable to the investigating public.

Second, Martires put an end to lifestyle checks, saying that “living beyond one’s means” is vague and hard to determine.

Martires’ rulings raise suspicions on where his loyalty lies. Is he working for the Filipino people, who he swore to serve, or for politicians?

At a time when graft and corruption is back with a vengeance, his rulings make it easier for corrupt officials to go undetected. This should alarm us all. The last thing we want are more PhilHealth scams and the further proliferation of syndicates in government agencies.

For those unaware, Ombudsman Martires was President Duterte’s first appointee to the Supreme Court. No surprise, he is a classmate of the President in San Beda’s College of Law.

What were some of the decisions Martires is known for? Public records show that in 2012, he penned the decision declaring Ferdinand Marcos, Fabian Ver and Roberto Ongpin not guilty for receiving kickbacks, commissions, percentages from profits when the trio controlled the “Binondo Central Bank.” In 2013, Martires was a member of the 2nd Division of the Sandiganbayan when it issued a resolution upholding the plea bargain between military comptroller Carlos Garcia and the ombudsman. This allowed Garcia to plead guilty to lesser bailable offenses instead of the non-bailable offense of plunder. Garcia was made to return only P135M worth of properties, less than half of the P303 million that he allegedly plundered.

In 2014, Martires issued a separate opinion dissenting the warrants of arrest issued against Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile and Gigi Reyes over the pork barrel scam.

As a tax paying citizen, I strongly reject the rulings that restrict public access to SALNs and the elimination of lifestyle checks.

No one said that SALNs and lifestyle checks are the definitive evidence of corruption – but it is certainly an indication of it. It is a useful tool to determine if government officials are engaging in illegal activities. For instance, if a Cabinet secretary, whose monthly salary is P152,000, is able to purchase a mansion in Alabang, this should raise suspicions and trigger an investigation. There is nothing vague about it. Denying the public access to SALNs and doing away with lifestyle checks make it more difficult to identify crooks in government. It makes dubious politicians more invisible.

Smart alecks would say that in the example mentioned above, the Cabinet secretary could have suddenly inherited wealth or enjoyed windfall profits from an investment. Isn’t it unfair to draw suspicion on him?

Look, those who join government should accept that public scrutiny comes with the territory. Let us not forget that government officials operate in the public domain. As such, some have direct access to government funds while others may have sway over procurement biddings and multimillion-peso deals. It is only right that their state of finances be made public. It serves the interest of transparency, which is at the heart of responsible governance.

Simply put, one cannot have control or influence over public funds and have the right to secrecy at the same time.

Martires may see no need for public access to SALNs and lifestyle checks but we, the citizens, do. It is neither right nor fair for him to deprive the public of transparency. The ombudsman’s ultimate bosses are the Filipino people.

The people’s right to access SALNs is clearly articulated in Section 8 of Republic Act 6713. Hence, by imposing these rules, Martires not only defies the law but also undermines the people’s rights. Even former senator Joey Lina says that Martires has gone beyond his authority and committed a clear violation of the law.

Martires argues that SALNs can be used to malign the reputations of government officials. To this, I say, a SALN will only be weaponized if there are glaring disparities between a politician’s net worth prior to joining government and his lifestyle. Those who can justify their wealth have nothing to fear.

Besides, the law states that the SALN cannot be used for any malicious or commercial purpose, nor purposes that are contrary to morals or public policy. This means politicians can sue anyone who maligns them using their SALN. The law protects politicians this way.

Let us not lose sight of what the ombudsman’s mandates are. It is to investigate on his own, or upon complaint by any person, any act or omission of government employees which appears to be illegal, unjust, improper or inefficient. In other words, the ombudsman’s job is to investigate and prosecute suspected illegal or corrupt acts. To help conceal illegal acts goes smack against the mandate.

I find it unsettling that the ombudsman is seemingly making it easier for corrupt officials to escape detection and dodge higher courts. I can’t help but think that the ombudsman is maneuvering the law to weaken our stance against corruption. This will have a grievous ripple effect that will haunt us for decades.

The rulings of the ombudsman have cast doubt over the integrity of the Duterte government. It gives the impression that the personalities in this administration have something to hide. Certainly, he has raised doubts as to whether the anti-graft campaign of government is sincere or a farce. Martires’ acts will surely have blowback on this administration, especially in the run up to 2022. In this sense, he has done a disservice to the incumbents.

As a parting shot, Martires had the temerity to ask Congress to restore the P4.6-billion budget of his office, which was reduced to P3.36 billion due to the pandemic. Classic.

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