MANILA, Philippines – Senators debated on Wednesday over the powers of the Ombudsman and the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) in acquiring and releasing of information pertinent to bank accounts citing fear of political blackmail using the two government agencies.
This was after Senator Teofisto "TG" Guingona III, Chairperson of the Sub-Committee on Anti-Money Laundering Amendments, pushed for the widening of powers of AMLC to cover larger range of institutions in the country.
Senators Joker Arroyo, Vicente Sotto and Serge Osmeña questioned the necessity of granting more powers to AMLC without pertinent safeguards using the dollar accounts case of Chief Justice Renato Corona where the Ombudsman showed freedom in releasing records to the public through the assistance of the AMLC data gathered from commercial banks.
Arroyo said that while the Ombudsman has the power to investigate erring officials and gather information from government agencies, he cited the probable violation a more superior law on privacy provided under the Constitution.
“The President of Philippines or the Ombudsman cannot violate a privacy provided to the citizens by law, like the rights on bank deposits,” said Arroyo.
But Guingona insisted that both government entities--Ombudsman and AMLC--did not violate any law.
“The records shown are data that the banks are required to submit to AMLC, so there is no violation here,” said Guingona.
Arroyo, however, questioned the authority of AMLC to release data, citing Corona's bank records as example.
“The tabulation (Corona case) given to us, it stated for intelligence purposes only, in other words, limited for intelligence services, what I want to know is, is AMLC required to release it?” Arroyo asked.
Senator Sotto believes that with the power vested on the Ombudsman and AMLC, government officials would be at the mercy of these government agencies, which he thinks has unclear power whether they can actually gather and release information such as a governor’s or a senator’s bank accounts.
"’Yung ang hinahanap namin, nasaan ang basis, nasaan ang black and white basis?" Sotto said. “We want a safeguard na hindi magagamit ito by your political foe.”
Sotto expressed fears that the investigations by these government agencies can happen in unfortunate times like in the middle of a campaign period which may be detrimental to any politician.
“Impact po nito, before election campaign durog na ‘yung governor, he will not have time to answer,” he said.
Sen. Osmeña agreed with Sotto and Arroyo. He said, “It’s time to safeguard rights, where certain issues might be use and will put certain people at a disadvantage.”
“We should probably revisit the Ombudsman Act, and limit the powers of the Ombudsman,” Osmeña said. “We could limit it so not everybody can be exposed by political blackmail.”
The debate over this issue at the session hall was cut short due to lack of time, but it will resume on Tuesday, with at least five more senators expected to raise their concerns on the matter.