MANILA - She is retiring next month as Ombudsman, but don’t count Conchita Carpio Morales out yet. After her term expires on July 26, she will still be around fighting corruption.
In an interview with an ABS-CBN News team, Morales said she may even run for an elective post, if sufficiently provoked to change her mind, with of course an anti-corruption platform, among other things. Otherwise, she will join, if not head, a non-government organization.
Either way, she said she would remain as feisty as ever. She wasn’t cut for politics, she said in the interview, but in the same breath she readily dished out a line from a 1960’s song “Just in case you change your mind” by Bobby Darin when asked about her plans after retirement.
She is now 77, she said. She would turn 81 in the next elections in 2022, still younger than Mahathir Mohamad who was re-elected as Prime Minister of Malaysia at 92, she giggled.
Doors closed, windows open
“Have you heard that song: ‘Just in case you change your mind’? I might change my mind but I’m firmly not for politics. You can still serve the public without any position by being an advocate against corruption. Maybe you can be with an NGO.”
Morales said there were a number of people who have been trying to convince her to run for senator and that she has not really turned them down.
“I said please allow me (some) breathing space. I need at least three months to fix my things. My records from DOJ (Department of Justice) to RTC (Regional Trial Court) to CA (Court of Appeals) to SC (Supreme Court) are still bundled," said the long-time magistrate.
"I need time to unbundle them and sort them out and classify what should be discarded and preserved for posterity.”
That means not all doors are closed? “Maybe all doors are closed, but the windows are open,” she quipped.
She had remained as frank as when she was a judge and an associate justice, a devil-may-care femme in all that, even picking up a fight with fellow judges and justices in her desire to strictly adhere to the rule of law, she said.
“I am mataray (feisty) since birth,’’ she said, reminiscent of the attitude of the Spanish philosopher who said: “Yo soy lo que soy (Roughly, that means: I am what I am).” Morales is who she is, she said. She is good, not because people speak well of her; but she isn’t bad either, only because people speak ill of her.
“My attitude somehow scares some lawyers to cheat,” she said. But it effectively attracted some 80 idealist ones to join the Office of the Ombudsman, too.
“You cannot please everybody, there are some detractors, but I would like to believe there are more who appreciate the work of the Office of the Ombudsman,” she said.
Four weeks before curtain call, the country’s fifth Ombudsman, probably the best of them all, looked back during the interview at her seven-year-term as Ombudsman with pride.
Can’t have it all
“We won some, we lost some,” she said. “No one is infallible. We did our best. If the best that we did didn’t meet the expectation of the public, so be it. But all our work was done with good faith. It was never laced with bad faith.”
When the Ombudsman lost some cases, Morales said, it was not because her lawyers had been bribed to let go of a case. “As far as I and my staff are concerned we were never ever bribed; we never did anything in consideration of something. If we lost, bad luck.”
Years back, Morales received reports that some people had been offered to “park” a case (read: sit on it). She dared the accusers to present evidence, but they didn’t.
“We need leads. Hindi naman puwedeng, ‘Ikaw daw ay humingi!’ Hearsay. So kailangan, 'yung nag(bigay) ng lagay sa taong 'yan, dapat lumapit, huwag kang matakot,” she said.
(You cannot just say "You asked for money." Hearsay. So the person who bribed that official should come forward, not be scared.)
“I’m told the lawyers whom I inherited have improved considerably. They have undergone a lot of capacity building exercises. Maybe they knew I expected them to improve, and they did,” she said.
In any case, Morales had dismissed top ranking Ombudsman officials for various offenses, including corruption.
“Our internal affairs board investigated them and they validated the fact that these people committed, if not corrupt acts, irregular acts in the performance of investigation and prosecution of cases,” she said.
“You cannot institutionalize the staff to be corrupt-free, there might be instances when they might be tempted but if they know you are admired for honesty, that in itself is an accomplishment that you cannot quantify,” she said.
“I’m told they were afraid of me. When I was new they said whenever I called for someone they had nervous diarrhea, they were nervous about what I was going to tell them,” she said.
19,000 to 6,000 cases
Morales had put to good use her experience as a trial court judge and an SC associate justice, she said.
“When I came here I inherited 19,000 cases more or less, and it was a big challenge for me. How to reduce that number of cases given that some of them were high profile cases like the fertilizer scam cases, the NBN-ZTE case, the Malampaya case and some other cases which had remained dormant,” she said.
“It was only in recent years that we passed upon these cases and unfortunately some are being dismissed by the Sandiganbayan because of inordinate delay which is a doctrine enunciated by the high court so it was a real challenge,” she said.
Apart from the 19,000 cases, the Ombudsman has been receiving an average of 5,200 cases a year. As of December 17, 2017, the backlog has been reduced to around 6,000 cases. Of the cases filed, the Office of the Ombudsman got a conviction rate of 77 percent, records showed.
“I would like to believe I have the same work ethic I had when I was in the judiciary, I was able to impart the writing style and the way to assess evidence to the lawyers. Whatever I learned in my experience at the judiciary, I imparted to the lawyers and investigators,” she said.
Morales didn’t set her eyes on any particular case, whether big or small, she said. “Kung ano ang ripe for resolution ‘yun ang aatupagin mo (Those that are ripe for resolution, focus on that). But bring out all old cases,” she said.
“Even if these cases have been pending for years, I tried my best to see to it these would be handled speedily so that you will not frustrate the expectation of the public. The public has been complaining about delayed decision of cases, delayed processing of investigations. So I set my own standard,” she said.
Of the many cases, Morales considered the suits against former Vice President Jejomar Binay and son former Makati Mayor Junjun Binay the most challenging.
“On top of the fact there were more than one involved there were a lot of documents we gathered and we had to assess and evaluate,” she said.
The other ones were the Priority Development Assistance Fund scam cases involving former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and his chief of staff Gigi Reyes, former Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla, and businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles.
“We just didn’t go to court for the heck of catering to public expectation,” she said. “We never did. We filed cases because we found that the evidence was warranted. If we dismissed cases and they didn’t reach the court it was because we didn’t believe it would meet the criteria of evidence that would be able to meet the court’s assessment of the evidence.”
With the celebrated cases, many moving at a snail’s pace, came great frustration. She would leave a great number of these cases behind.
“Of course I was frustrated. Well you see, under my watch the big cases are still being tried. If they are not being tried they were already dismissed. There is not much to be proud of because they are still undergoing trial,” she said.
“Even the Enrile case, the pretrial has not been concluded, it’s still in the pretrial stage, that was three or four years ago,” she said.
“Can you imagine if it goes to the trial stage where the prosecution will have to present evidence, like voluminous documents, and if there is no demurrer to evidence. Even if there is and it's denied and it goes to the SC and the SC doesn’t overturn the denial, then the defense will again present evidence. In a span of so many years the (pork barrel) cases have not even gone to the penultimate stage.”
Morales is now humble enough to say she couldn’t have it all. There are things beyond her control, she said. “I feel frustrated because what I believe is that our evidence is strong and yet because of some machinations of some lawyers, the flow of cases gets delayed,” she said.
Especially the cases she filed against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
“I was frustrated because I was certain that the evidence for the prosecution was very strong and, in fact, the Sandiganbayan which assessed the evidence denied the demurrer to evidence but when it got to the SC, the SC reversed the denial by the Sandiganbayan of the demurrer to evidence. Of course I was frustrated,” she said.
(By a vote of 11-4 in July 2016, the Supreme Court acquitted Arroyo of plunder, effectively releasing her from four years of hospital arrest).
Morales is older, but now wiser.
“You are no longer normal if you do not get frustrated by things like this. You cannot be euphoric because you lost. The only feeling you have is frustration. But the frustration wears off after some time and you have to move on. That’s what I did,” she said.
Dealing with Presidents is another matter, especially for Morales who had a monastic career atypical of a judge and a justice. She had to deal with them periodically.
“President PNoy never ever interfered, you never heard anything from him (in respect to) the outcome of our cases (against him),” she said.
“In the case of President Duterte, well, like what he said about the Mamasapano case. He said he was disappointed with my finding of usurpation of authority (against Aquino) because they wanted us to file reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide,” she said.
She couldn’t care less, she said.
“It never bothered me,” she said. Did they ever call her? “Never. Maybe there were some innuendos that maybe this case should turn out this way but I was impervious to these innuendos. I always say we go by the evidence, Whatever I do, I do on the basis of facts, circumstances and evidence presented.”
“I don’t get intimidated. I am a no-nonsense person. Fear has never reigned in my life. Of course I m a fatalist. I always say, if it’s your time, it’s your time,” she said.
When all these things shall have been over, Morales said she would like to be remembered as the Ombudsman “who did well because she was impervious to pressure, impervious to criticisms, who is loyal, has been, and always will be loyal to the rule of law.”
Nothing more, nothing less.