Ombudsman grilled over powers vis-a-vis AMLC

by Ira Pedrasa,

Posted at May 15 2012 10:48 PM | Updated as of May 17 2012 01:08 AM

Carpio-Morales admits not verifying AMLC report

MANILA, Philippines - Senator-judges on Tuesday questioned Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales about her power in obtaining information from the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) on Chief Justice Renato Corona's dollar accounts, with some saying she may have overstepped her powers as the country's tanodbayan.

Several senator-judges noted how easy it was for the Ombudsman to get information on Corona's $10 million in “fresh deposits” in 5 banks from the AMLC.

Carpio Morales said on Monday she was empowered by the Constitution and the Ombudsman law. The latter allows her to seek the help of other government agencies in obtaining evidence against a defendant.

Senator-judge Miriam Defensor Santiago noted: “Your position would logically lead to the conclusion that the bank accounts of any public officer can be opened on mere request by the Ombudsman without any court order.”

Santiago asked the Ombudsman: “How broad are the powers of the Ombudsman? Or should we adopt the idea that the powers are unlimited?”

With such broad powers, she said the Ombudsman may be overriding other relevant laws such as the Anti-Money Laundering Act, the Foreign Currency Deposit Act, and Supreme Court decisions.

Santiago added that if the Ombudsman deems a complaint worthy of investigation, “you can go direct to the AMLC and not follow the procedures in the [Anti-Money Laundering Act].”

Based on the AMLA, a series of procedures need to be followed before anyone can access bank data. Santiago said Carpio Morales should have sought a court order first.

A tussle erupted between the two feisty women, with the Ombudsman answering indirectly by citing her powers under the Ombudsman Law.

Santiago retorted, “You are fudging your answer!” Carpio Morales said she was not.

Santiago replied, “You are arguing with a senator-judge.”

The exchange ended with Carpio Morales saying, “I am sorry, mea culpa,” and Santiago accepting her apology.
Waiver in SALN

Senator-judge Alan Peter Cayetano said there appeared to be a change in the Ombudsman's mindset in initiating investigations against officials suspected of wrongdoing.

He noted that the Senate could not even source data, despite multiple attempts, from the AMLC when they were investigating the fertilizer fund scam during the previous administration.

“[AMLC executive director Vicente Aquino] once said he needs a court order. He did not even offer us the idea that we can go to the Ombudsman,” Cayetano added.

He also said the Ombudsman’s “power” to go directly to the AMLC for information superseded Carpio Morales' earlier statement that she was given the authority to investigate Corona via a “waiver” signed in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN).

Carpio Morales said the consent from the AMLC in providing her details on Corona's dollar accounts and transactions overrides the supposed waiver.

Cayetano then asked: “So there’s no need to amend the SALN law and the AMLAC because you can just go to AMLAC and ask for their consent?”

Carpio Morales said: “It’s a debatable issue, I’d rather not comment.” She said her going to the AMLC will still depend on her office getting leads that are meritorious.

Senator-judge Francis Pangilinan also asked: “Without the waiver, would you still have been able to request from the AMLC?” She said: “I would have, just the same, under the Constitution and the Ombudsman Act.”

She said questions should also be directed to the AMLC, noting “they did not cite any reason for giving the document [on Corona's dollar accounts] to me.”

Not singling out Corona?

Carpio Morales said the waiver in the SALN is still “very valuable” since it erases doubts on whether the Ombudsman can initiate a probe.

Cayetano said, however, that even if there is a so-called waiver, a person is still entitled to Constitutional right against unreasonable searches. “So where do we draw the line? When is it unreasonable to go to the AMLC?”

Senator Gregorio Honasan, meanwhile, sought assurance from Carpio Morales that Corona was not being singled out by the Ombudsman.

On Monday, the defense tried to get answers from Carpio Morales about her links to President Benigno Aquino III. Corona has repeatedly said he believes the impeachment case was the handiwork of Aquino and his allies.

Honasan asked Carpio Morales if she has also sought the help of the AMLC for other high-profile cases other than Corona's. She replied: “As far as the case of the Chief Justice, that’s the first that came to me during my incumbency. I did not go over the others.”

Asked how many times the AMLC itself turned over data to the Ombudsman, she said she does not have this information.

Evidence relevant

Senator-judge Pia Cayetano said she would be bring up in caucus next week the relevance of the Ombudsman’s evidence culled from the AMLC.

“How do we treat the evidence she presented given that she herself cited section 22 of the Ombudsman Act,” she said. "The provision states that the only purpose of investigating an impeachable officer is to file a verified complaint at the House of Representatives, if warranted."

Carpio Morales yesterday admitted that she would, if warranted, use her evidence for another impeachment complaint against Corona in December, assuming he is acquitted by the Senate.

The one-year ban on filing an impeachment case against Corona expires on December 12, 2012.

Not verified

Under re-direct examination, Carpio Morales said she did not verify the contents of the AMLC document since she would have to go to the banks, which would then cite the secrecy prohibition in the Foreign Currency Deposit Act.

Lead defense counsel Serafin Cuevas tried to weaken her credibility by going over the contents of the AMLC document and asking her if she knew whether the information on the dollar accounts are verified.

Carpio Morales admitted she did not know the origins of the transactions and whether the bank accounts mentioned in the report were already closed.

“You give us the impression that you swallowed hook line and sinker the entire contents submitted to you in response to your letter request (by AMLC),” Cuevas said.

“Again, I say, the presumption is that they would give me correct information.” Morales replied.

Citing Supreme Court jurisprudence, Cuevas noted that the Ombudsman can’t just investigate any malfeasance on the part of a government official, adding the probe must be in connection with his or her performance of an official duty.

Carpio Morales, however, said her power covers anything “that violates the law.”