MANILA (UPDATE) - Ombudsman Samuel Martires on Thursday said he wants the country's laws on the release of Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of government personnel reconciled, proposing jail time for those who make public comments on such documents.
“I want to reconcile (Republic Act ) 6713 with (Republic Act ) 3019 on the SALN, provide safety nets so that a SALN can be published, but no person should be allowed to comment on the SALN of a particular government official or employee," Martires said during his appearance before the House Appropriations Committee for his agency's proposed 2022 budget.
He was referring to the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, and the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, respectively.
Suggesting "stringent penalties" on anyone who makes a public comment on any SALN, which he said is not allowed under RA 6713, Martires said those liable may be imprisoned for not less than 5 years.
He asserted that while publication of SALN is allowed, "making any comment" on it is not.
"What is happening right now is we compare the SALN of this government official, current year and the previous year. If there is an increase, they will immediately say, “O, bakit tumaas ang SALN ni Ombudsman?” he said.
"I am a victim of that. I had wanted to prove to my staff what the media can do to destroy a government official. I give my SALN. What happened? The following day, it was the banner story in one of the leading newspapers. “Ombudsman richer by P15M in 3 months.” So parang kumikita ako ng P5M isang buwan."
Martires said the "media does not know" that "they're not allowed to make any comment."
"I don't know if they understand English also. But the provision of (RA) 6713 is very clear. Napakaliwanag, only for publication. Walang komentaryo," he said.
He is also proposing that repositories of the SALN be given authority to release, saying current guidelines are not clear on this and that they even get blamed for not releasing the SALN of the President and the Vice President.
"Pinagtataka ko naman po, bakit napaka-interesado natin sa SALN ng Presidente at Bise Presidente? Bakit hindi tayo interesado sa SALN ng ibang opisyal ng gobyerno?" he asked.
(I am wondering why we are so interested with the SALNs of the President and the Vice President? Why aren't we interested with the SALNs of other government officials?)
"I really do not know what is the purpose of these people asking for the SALN of the President, specifically, and the Vice President. What is in that offices? Is it only the President and Vice President who's capable of corruption? Isn't corruption starting in the grassroots, from the ranks of the clerks?"
The Office of the Ombudsman last year issued a memorandum, limiting public access to the SALN and allowing its release only for official investigations, by court order, or upon authority from officials themselves.
Martires had listed qualifications needed to gain access to an official's SALN.
Citing the same memorandum circular, the Ombudsman early this month denied the request of a lawyer to secure a copy of President Rodrigo Duterte's SALN.
The office of the Ombudsman is the repository of SALNs of top government officials like the President, Vice President and heads of Constitutional bodies. SALNs of government officials of lower positions and rank and file employees, on the other hand, are with the Civil Service Commission.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate protested the Ombudsman's position, calling it dangerous as he cited people’s right to freedom of expression.
"Hindi ba napaka-dangerous noon, na i-penalize natin ang ating mga mamamayan kung nagtatanong sila dahil guaranteed naman sa ating Constitution na meron silang freedom of expression and also the principle of transparency and accountability?" Zarate said.
(Isn't it dangerous that we penalize our citizens for asking about it? Freedom of expression is guaranteed in our Constitution.)
Article XI, Section 17 of the Constitution states: "In the case of the President, the Vice-President, the Members of the Cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Commissions and other constitutional offices, and officers of the armed forces with general or flag rank, the declaration shall be disclosed to the public in the manner provided by law."
Rep. Arlene Brosas of Gabriela said "Martires' proposal to criminalize commentaries on the SALN of public officials will inhibit the people's right to free speech," and that it would "ridiculously" send "a chilling effect for an act that should not even be treated as a crime."
"Bakit gagawing krimen ang pagiging mapagmatyag sa yaman ng mga nakaupong opisyal, pero hindi iniimbestigahan ang mga opisyal na sangkot sa maling paggamit ng pondo ng bayan sa panahon ng pandemya?" she said.
(Why is being vigilant against the wealth of incumbent officials being criminalized, while officials who are involved in wrongful use of public funds during the pandemic are not being investigated?)
Brosas said "SALNs are supposedly public documents, and public interpretations based on such should be allowed."
"Any attempt to clip free discourse on the wealth of public officials is a direct attack on free speech, and a move to shield sitting officers from public scrutiny," she said.
The lawmaker urged the Ombudsman to "stop pandering to the narrow interest of top officials to preserve their reputation" and "act in line with its Constitutional mandate to uphold transparency and effeicent use of public funds."
The Supreme Court in July junked a petition challenging Martires’ memorandum circular last year, saying there was no actual case.
Atty. Dino de Leon, whose request for Duterte's SALN had been denied by Malacañang and the Ombudsman, said he believes the latter's September 2020 issuance restricting access to SALNs without the authorization of the declarant has no legal basis.
Based on the 2020 issuance, access to officials' SALNs will be limited to the following:
- Duly authorized representative of public officials
- Persons who made the request upon lawful order of the court in relation to a pending case
- Offices, bureaus, and units of the Ombudsman for the purpose of conducting a fact-finding investigation
During Thursday's hearing at the House committee, Martires stood his ground and insisted on his decision not to release Duterte's SALN.
"I will not yield to public opinion to release the SALN of any public official, in violation of the very memorandum circular that I issued," he said.
"I am sorry to say that I am willing to be removed from office to defend the memorandum circular I issued," he added.
Responding to ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro, Martirez said he has not been authorized to release Duterte’s SALN to the public.
"Wala pa hong report sa akin (there's no report) that there’s an authority from the Office of the President. But I’d like to assure you that the President himself has a complete SALN filed with the Office of the Ombudsman until 2020," he said.
Vice President Leni Robredo, who has been releasing her SALN to requesting parties, had criticized the policy of Martires, saying it may send a message that addressing corruption is not a priority of government.
Former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales also told Martires, who succeeded her, to follow the anti-graft law "to the letter."
"It goes against the constitutional principle that public office is a public trust," she said of the SALN restriction. "You are supposed to be transparent."
Martires told lawmakers they are still doing lifestyle checks on public officials but only when investigators are doing an actual probe.
“We are not conducting a lifestyle check based on a complaint. We are conducting a lifestyle check to support a case that we are investigating. So kung mayroon hong pending case ang isang (so if there is a pending case against a) government official and we are not satisfied, we go into a lifestyle check. That is the time we look into the SALN of that government official discreetly," he said.
"We coordinate with the Anti-Money Laundering Council to be able to see if really there is a connection between the income of this particular respondent and the accusation that is being lodged,” he added.
Earlier in the budget briefing, Quezon City 6th District Rep. Kit Belmonte batted for the restoration of the budget of the Ombudsman which was cut by P600 million by the Department of Budget and Management.
“The budget cut that amounts to more than P600 million will definitely affect the performance of the agency. It's very unlikely that while other departments are given higher budgets as compared to the previous years, the Ombudman will get a much lower appropriations from P4.5 billion in 2021 or the current year, to only P3.9 billion of the P4.7 billion proposed budget for 2022, as per recommendation of the Department of Budget and Management," said Belmonte.
“We all know that 2022 is an election year and the people are expecting that the Ombudsman will expedite the resolution of all pending graft cases filed against elected public officials before the May local and national polls. In so doing, the agency can help prevent the reelection of government officials found guilty of administrative and criminal offenses," he added.
Martires seemed to be ready though to live with the budget given to his office, citing the pandemic.
“On the matter of the budget, if that is what the government can give us, less than what was given to us in 2021, we’re willing to accept it if there is a need to augment the budget of the other agencies who are in charge of fighting this pandemic, of preventing this spread of the COVID virus," he said.
"We’re willing to sacrifice. After all, our investigation actually since 2020 has been affected by this pandemic.”
Martires, a former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, said he believes that eradicating corruption will take a lifetime.
"On the aspect of combatting corruption in the country, I think it will take us a lifetime to fight corruption unless and until we change our values, unless and until we disregard the sources of corruption, which is greed, envy, lust, avarice - these are all the seven cardinal sins," he said.
“So unless we change our values, no matter who the Ombudsman is, no matter how big the organization of the Ombudsman is, we cannot fight, we cannot prevent graft and corruption because it is already endemic in our society," he said.
"Everyone wants to be rich. From a concept of a bahay-kubo, we all dream to have big houses, houses made of stones. So nawala sa atin ‘yong bahay kubo. Ang iniisip natin ngayon, mansyon.”
'RIGHT TO COMMENT'
For his part, human rights lawyer Chel Diokno said it is part of the Ombudsman's job to promote transparency, not hinder it.
"I disagree with Omb. Martires. Trabaho ng Ombudsman i-promote ang transparency, hindi ang hadlangan pa ito (It is the Ombudsman's job to promote transparency, not hinder it). The Constitution also guarantees our right to comment on matters of public concern— at kasama doon ang SALNs," he said in a statement.
Diokno said he is more bothered, however, by the apparent continued refusal to release President Rodrigo Duterte's SALN.
"Imbis na ipagkaila ni Omb. Martires ang hinihiling na SALN ni Pangulong Duterte, dapat ibinigay ito. Ang batas ang boss ng Ombudsman, hindi ang Pangulo."
(Instead of keeping it away from the public, this should be released. The Ombudsman's boss is the law, not the President.)
He also reminded Martires that the law does not allow the Ombudsman to prohibit access to SALNs.
"Sabi mismo ng Supreme Court (the Supreme Court itself said it): while custodians of SALNs like Omb. Martires can regulate how SALNs can be inspected or copied, 'such discretion does not carry with it the authority to prohibit access, inspection, examination, or copying.'"