Ombudsman's stricter rules on SALN hit

by Maria Althea Teves and Gemma Bagayaua Mendoza, abs-cbnNEWS.com/ Newsbreak

Posted at Sep 10 2009 02:13 PM | Updated as of Sep 11 2009 05:45 AM

Ombudsman Ma. Merceditas N. Gutierrez

New rules may run contrary to spirit of the code ethical standards of government officials which was enacted by Congress after the discovery of Marcoses’ hidden wealth

MANILA - The Office of the Ombudsman has tightened rules in furnishing the public with copies of government officials’ statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN).
 
To request for a SALN, a sworn statement before a prosecutor of the Ombudsman stating the reasons for the request. Before, only a simple letter-request had to be filed. 
 
Aside from this, Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez’s Memorandum Circular No. 1 signed on June 17, 2009 requires the requesting party to present 2 government-issued identification cards.

Law mandates public access

The new rules may run contrary to the spirit and text of the law governing the filing of assets statements by government officials.

The access clause is actually a new provision in Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees (RA 6713), which was enacted in February 1989—three years after the EDSA Revolution ousted the Marcoses.

An earlier law requiring the filing of SALNs, the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (RA 3019), does not have this access provision.

RA 6713 specifically states that the statements filed under said law, such as the SALN, are supposed to be made available to the public for inspection as well as for copying or reproduction within 10 working days from the time they were filed.

The statements are supposed be kept available to the public for a period of 10 years after it was received by the designated repository office.
The law only required persons requesting for copies of the statements to (1) access or reproduce said statements “at reasonable hours” and “pay a reasonable fee to cover the cost of reproduction and mailing of such statement, as well as the cost of certification.”
The only limitations to access set forth in the law is, if the statements are used for “any purpose contrary to morals or public policy” or “any commercial purpose other than by news and communications media for dissemination to the general public.”

Harder to gain access?
 
The new rules essentially make the already difficult process of obtaining SALNs from repository agencies much more difficult. (See Wild Goose Chase)

Defending the new rules, however, assistant Ombudsman Jose de Jesus Jr. told The Philippine Star newspaper that, “There has to be a procedure.” The requirement, he said, would prove that the person requesting for the documents is “not fictitious.” 
 
Requests of copies of SALNs would only be granted if these would be used for study purposes in school, disseminated to the general public through news, or if a court or any other or any other quasi-judicial agency asked for it.
 
The memorandum circular also stated: “This office is cognizant of the fact that in other times the request is made under circumstances which may endanger, diminish, or destroy the independence and objectivity of the Office of the Ombudsman and its officials in the performance of their quasi-judicial functions and expose them to revenge for adverse decisions.”
 
De Jesus said that they are just laying out requirements on how the public or the media to gain access to a public document.
 
“We have to put some regulations. This should not be construed as something to infringe on the people’s right to access to information or public documents,” he stressed.
 
He added that the measures were only to assure that the SALNs “will not be used for harassment.”

“We just would like to make sure that the request is legitimate and the copy will be used for a legitimate purpose and not for harassment or a fishing expedition,” he stressed.
 
“While the Office of the Ombudsman is willing to furnish copies (of the SALNs) of public officials and employees to persons requesting for the same, the reason for the same must be legitimate,” the order stated.
 
First family exposés
 
De Jesus also insisted that the new regulations have nothing to do with recent media exposés about President Arroyo and the First Family’s wealth.
 
The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism recently came out with reports of the First Family’s wealth increase since President Arroyo became a public official.
 
They also came out with a report also showing the number of foundations established during Arroyo’s presidency.
 
Another investigative group, VERA Files, came out with a report on Pampanga Rep. Mike Arroyo's million-dollar home in San Francisco .
 
The reports were published after the President’s “lavish” dinner with other public officials at New York ’s Le Cirque restaurant during her US visit over a month ago. 
 
Request denied
 
The Ombudsman's memorandum circular specifically points to specific instances wherein a request can be denied, especially when the applicant plans to use the SALNs for extortion or blackmail.
 
“Where the purpose stated is contrary to morals or public policy, or is commercial in nature other than by news and communication media for dissemination to the general public, the request shall be denied outright,” the order states.
 
De Jesus said the new rules are patterned after those of the Supreme Court, which implements even stricter rules in giving out copies of the SALNs of justices.
 
Under the law, the Office of the Ombudsman is the legal repository or keeper of the SALNs of presidents, vice presidents, and that of other constitutional officials working for agencies like the Commission on Human Rights and the Commission on Elections.
 
De Jesus said that SALNs of Cabinet secretaries are filed at the Office of the President while those of senators and congressmen are kept by the secretaries of the respective houses of Congress.

Chiz: SALNs should be on Internet

Meanwhile, Senator Francis 'Chiz' Escudero on Thursday criticized the new memorandum issued by the Ombudsman on the SALN.

“Kung ayaw mo hassle, kung ayaw mong mapintasan, kung ayaw mong makita ang mga ari-arian mo, di h’wag kang pumasok sa gubyerno. Kung ayaw mong ma-harass, magulo ang buhay mo h’wag kang pumasok sa gobyerno,” Escudero said.

“Hindi angkop at bagay ang salitang confidentiality sa salitang public document. Kapag sinabi mong public document para sa publiko. Hindi angkop o bagay gamitin na ipagbawal o limitahan iyan,” he added.

“Ang dapat nilang pangalagaan, interest at kapakanan ng publiko at ng sambayan at hindi ng opisyal,” he said.

Escudero said the Ombudsman's rules should not be a hindrance for the public to access the documents.

“Hindi na parang titulo na itinatabi at inilalagay sa loob ng kaha de yero. Iyan ay isang dokumento na tagapagtabi sila para kung sinuman ang may kailangan alam kung saan pupunta at kukunin,” he said.

Furthermore, Escudero believes that public officials’ SALNs should also be made available on the internet.

“Alam ninyo, dapat pa nga pina-publish sa internet ang SALN ng mga opisyal. Dahil wala ka dapat itinatago kaugnay sa mga assets mo o pati pagkakautang mo. Kaya para hindi na din kailangang magre-request, posted na lang sa internet dapat sana ang SALN ng isang opisyal,” Escudero said.

The Senate, he said, has passed a bill that would allow easier access to SALNs.

“Sa Senado may inapprove na kaming bill na pagdedebatihan na pinapalawak pa ang access at requirements kaugnay ng SALN kung saan nilalagyan na natin ng automatic waiver yung SALN pabor sa Ombudsman, Anti-Money Laundering Council, Bangko Sentral at Anti-Graft Commission para tingnan ang bank account ng sinumang opisyal. Pasado na sa komite nasa plenary na at handa nang pagdebatihan,” he said.

Red tape discourages citizens

Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago said in an interview with reporters at the Senate on Thursday that she does not understand why there should be bureaucratic procedures, such as the new rules, to obtain the SALNs as these discourage Filipinos from acquiring public documents.

“I don’t see how anyone cannot just walk to a public office and say ‘I am a Filipino as you can very well see, and I want to see a copy of this or this official document,’” she said. “I am always against bureaucratic red tape, particularly since our Constitution is unique.”

Santiago said that the Philippines is one of the very few countries in the world with a Constitution that has a provision with regards to the right of the people to information on matters of public concern.

The public officials’ SALNs are public documents, she said, and should be available to the public.

Avoiding ‘harassment’

Santiago said that since the SALN only has certain lines and spaces for replies, “there’s really no room for explaining things.”

“What should be done is to require the public official to attach supplementary documents if the replies are long,” she said.

For example, if the official wanted to explain why he did list a certain property, he could attach a supplement saying whom or which corporations the properties have been transferred to, she said.

Santiago said that by adding a supplementary explanation, the citizen could do more investigation, like if the transfer has been approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“But in its present form, the SALN does not give any space for that, so we all just list our assets without any explanation why some assets from the prior SALN are no longer there and how we acquired the new assets. It could prevent the harassment of public officials, but it could also prevent the citizen from obtaining information,” she said.  -- abs-cbnNEWS.com/ Newsbreak with reports from Philippine Star