Ombudsman vows speedy resolution of 'pork' cases

by Michael Punongbayan and Edu Punay, The Philippine Star

Posted at Sep 20 2013 02:09 AM | Updated as of Sep 20 2013 05:02 PM

MANILA, Philippines - After finding time to personally make a quick but careful review of the stacks of documents related to the plunder and malversation charges filed against three senators and 35 others, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales said her office is likely to arrive at a decision on the matter sooner than she had expected.

“Yesterday (Wednesday), I had a field day going over the first batch of documentary evidence submitted by the NBI (National Bureau of Investigation) and I assure you, you’ll be in for a surprise, it’s going to take much less (time),” she told foreign and local businessmen attending the Integrity Summit organized by the Makati Business Club (MBC) and the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (ECCP) at the Shangri-La Hotel in Makati City.

Morales made the pronouncement after being asked to confirm an earlier declaration that an evaluation of the evidence by her investigators might take at least a year to finish. Their findings would be used as basis for elevating the cases to the Sandiganbayan.

Charged with plunder on Monday for allegedly misusing their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) were Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile and Senators Ramon Revilla Jr. and Jinggoy Estrada.

Also facing plunder and malversation of public funds were 35 others – including businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, widely believed to have orchestrated the pork barrel scam in connivance with some lawmakers and officials. PDAF is the official name of the congressional pork barrel.

Also at yesterday’s gathering were Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, Commission on Audit (COA) Chairman Grace Pulido-Tan, Senate President Franklin Drilon, and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad.

Morales explained that she was not setting a deadline when she stated earlier that their evaluation of evidence would take about a year. She said she was merely answering questions from reporters.

But after personally examining the documents, she said she realized the public would not have to wait very long.

Don’t just bark, bite

Morales also urged the business community to be more vigilant and active in fighting corruption, particularly in securing business permits and licenses, saying graft and red tape discourage investments.

“Don’t just bark and bark, bite,” she said, to the applause of her audience.

“Corruption is increasingly becoming systemic. No matter how many government officials we send to jail, if the system remains uncured, the cycle of corruption will not stop,” she said in her speech.

“The ill-fated system will breed, and as you and I have witnessed, breed succeeding generations of corrupt leaders,” she said. She exhorted her audience to bear in mind Benjamin Franklin’s words that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

“As there is yet no absolute cure and I doubt it will ever come. Corruption prevention appears to be the only remedy or antidote to this social malady,” Morales pointed out, citing vigorous efforts by officials under the Aquino administration to fight graft and corruption.

Taking advantage of Drilon’s and Abad’s presence, both Morales and Tan reminded the senator and the Cabinet officials of the financial problems besetting agencies actively involved in anti-corruption tasks.

Morales said the starting salary of a lawyer at the Office of the Ombudsman is around P58,000, which deflates to around P40,000 after taxes are deducted.

“How can you compete with private firms? On the part of ladies, sa lipstick na lang ang mahal mahal (lipstick has become so expensive),”she said in jest. “Mr. Senate President and DBM, please help us.”

Tan told Drilon and Abad that in other countries the budget of the audit office is fixed and no longer needs to be legislated by Congress.

“And there are guaranties under the law that it cannot be reduced, that it can only be increased to so much. That’s one way by which the independence of COA can be guaranteed,” she said.

She lamented that during congressional hearings on the budget, many unsympathetic lawmakers would rather grill COA officials than inquire about their agency’s needs and requirements.

Evidence matters most

Sereno, for her part, said that whatever decision is reached by the courts on the plunder and malversation charges would depend on the strength of evidence and testimonies from witnesses and on how these are presented by prosecutors.

“It is important that the public understand that it is the duty of the appropriate bodies, the executive and the ombudsman, to ensure that the law they invoke and the evidence they present suffice to authorize the judiciary to arrest, detain and convict,” she said in a speech.

“While the judiciary has the power to order the arrest and continued detention of the accused, the state’s prosecutors must meet the burden of proof required for the issuance of arrest warrants and denial of bail,” she added.

She said the courts decide on cases “on the basis of the provisions of the Constitution or the laws that are alleged to have been violated, and on the basis of the admissibility and the weight of the evidence that are before it.”

For civil cases, she said a preponderance of evidence would be enough for the government to win. But criminal cases like plunder, she said, have to be proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Sereno also assured the public that politics doesn’t come into play in court decisions.

“Unlike the two political branches of government, the executive and the legislature, the judiciary is prohibited from making decisions based on political considerations,” she stressed.

She said it’s the judiciary’s commitment not to be swayed by outside influence, “not even in order to conform to public sentiment, especially in criminal proceedings.”

“The judiciary must remain deaf, even to the public clamor for conviction, and can only hear what is appropriately brought before its halls of justice,” she pointed out.

“That is why it is all-important that the country must have a judiciary that is populated by independent, competent judges who live in constant mortal fear of not doing what is right,” she maintained.

The SC chief also said there are three pending petitions before the high court questioning the constitutionality of the PDAF. But she said “necessary systems” are in place under the law to ensure against misuse of public funds.

“What is often forgotten, however, is that the Constitution also provides a practical framework for addressing issues of governance. The constitutional framework is practical because it describes, with sufficient clarity, the process by which accountability over public funds is to be ensured,” she said.

“And, with respect to the constitutional requirement on fidelity over public resources, statutes have been enacted in line with the Constitution,” she added.

Sereno also batted for stronger COA and Office of the Ombudsman.

“While the freedom to express outrage over perceived anomalies is part of the guaranteed freedoms of the sovereign people, it is not only this collective vocal expression but the proper functioning of the constitutional and statutory bodies that are mandated to address the misuse of public funds, that make for a truly functioning democracy, one where the rule of law prevails,” she said.

She also stressed there should be “faithful execution of laws” in the investigation and in prosecution of officials and their cohorts for anomalous use of public funds.

She also called on the Office of the Ombudsman to expedite its appraisal of evidence gathered by the NBI in its plunder and malversation cases against 38 individuals, including three senators.

“The law requires the ombudsman to give priority to complaints filed against high-ranking government officials and/or those occupying supervisory positions, complaints involving grave offenses as well as complaints involving large sums of money and/or properties,” Sereno said.