Revisiting the Ombudsman Law

By Atty. Harry Roque

Posted at Sep 03 2010 09:43 PM | Updated as of Sep 04 2010 05:43 AM

That former police officer Rolando Mendoza complained about the inefficiency of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez highlights the need for Congress to re-examine the Ombudsman as an institution created by the Constitution and by law.

While it is the 1987 Constitution that first created the Office of the Ombudsman, it is a mere law that gave the said office a monopoly in the filing of criminal information against government officials with a salary rank of Grade 27 and up. It is also a law that gave the Ombudsman the power to hear and decide administrative charges against all government employees. This appears to be redundant given that all line agencies, in conjunction with the Civil Service Commission, already have existing mechanisms to determine the fitness of individuals to occupy a public office.

The complaint of the bemedaled slain hostage-taker was that the Ombudsman was not acting seasonably to dismiss charges against him. He apparently considered these charges to be bereft of merit. The charge was supposedly filed by a chef from Manila Hotel who claimed to have been a victim of hulidap by Mendoza et. al. It was this charge, I understand, that led to his discharge from his office which then gave rise to his demand to be “reinstated into the service”.

In a press forum yesterday at the Rotary Center in Quezon City, journalists mentioned that the same charge against Mendoza had already been dismissed by the Internal Affairs Service of the Philippine National Police. Apparently, despite this dismissal, the matter is still being heard by the Office of the Ombudsman. I can only surmise that this is so because criminal charges against Mendoza must have been filed arising from the “hulidap” incident. In turn, the filing of every criminal charge in the Ombudsman comes with it an administrative charge which will determine whether the respondent should stay or be fired from his public office.

Not being a fan of the Ombudsman, I can only hope that Mendoza’s valid complaints against her will add much needed fire to the pending impeachment complaints against her now pending in Congress. But over and above the fitness of the Ombudsman to continue occupying such a sensitive post, the Mendoza incident ought at least to prompt our lawmakers to revisit the Ombudsman law. In particular, I submit three basic submissions on why the said law should be amended: to prevent similar paralysis in the Office where it is occupied by a virulently political person; two, to put the office at par with the National Prosecution Service; and three, to rationalize its administrative jurisdiction.

The Ombudsman was envisioned to be a super body that would have the power to promote honesty, efficiency, and transparency in government. Its powers are many and may in fact be rivaled only by the President himself. It has coercive powers to compel attendance and production of evidence, order the doing or to cease the doing any act, to investigate any case of ill gotten wealth, and even the power of contempt.

Moreover, it has the power to file criminal information before the Sandiganbayan against public officers with a salary grade of 27 and up. It is this particular power that is hindered where the Ombudsman is seen to be more political than a legal institution. As seen in the case of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez who has admitted her personal closeness to the past dispensation, political loyalty could lead to wanton impunity owing to the Ombudsman’s avowed refusal to investigate her political benefactors.

Perhaps, amendatory legislation is now necessary to address this inherent weakness. How? By vesting in the Executive, through the Department of Justice, the concurrent power to file these criminal Information with the Sandiganbayan. Had this been in place, there would have been no further need for P-Noy’s Truth Commission.

Secondly, in the conduct of preliminary investigation, the law should be amended to compel the Ombudsman to resolve all of its investigations within a non-extendible period of 90 days. In the Pestano case for murder, the Ombudsman took ten years to investigate the matter and at the end of its alleged investigation- only to dismiss the case. Why should the Ombudsman be allowed 10 years to determine the existence of probable cause where our public prosecutors will lose their entitlement to their salaries if they do not conclude with their investigations within 90 days? This was the crux of Mendoza’s gripes against the Ombudsman. The truth of the matter is that the Ombudsman is now notorious for sitting on cases for years with the result that once decent people, like Mendoza, have lost all hopes in our legal system precisely because of inordinate delays.

The final area for remedial legislation is the need to rationalize the exercise of the Ombudsman’s administrative jurisdiction. If the reports from the media are correct, Mendoza’s administrative case had already been dismissed by the Internal Affairs Service of the Philippine National Police. In other words, had it not been for the administrative investigation also being conducted by the Ombudsman, there would not have been a hindrance to his reinstatement into the service even without him resorting to the taking of hostages. It seems to me that legislation should be introduced either to vest in the Ombudsman the sole jurisdiction to determine the fitness of individuals to hold public office, or to grant this existing power to already existing agencies. In the case of the PNP, these bodies are the Internal Affairs Service (IAS) or the National Police Commission. Certainly, we can understand the frustration of Mendoza when despite being cleared by the IAS, the inaction of the Ombudsman has nonetheless prevented his reinstatement.

Nothing of course will justify what Mendoza did. Some good, though, should come out of this latest tragedy. Perhaps, the foregoing remedial legislation will be the good news resulting from the tragedy at Luneta.