Ombudsman 'lost its purpose' in imposing SALN restrictions: Constitution framer

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 14 2021 08:57 AM

Office of the Ombudsman main building. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News
Office of the Ombudsman main building. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Coalition challenges gov’t officials, potential candidates: Show your SALNs, bank and medical records

MANILA — A framer of the 1987 Constitution on Monday slammed the Office of the Ombudsman for having “lost its purpose” in imposing restrictions on access to statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) of government officials.

Lawyer Christian Monsod, who was a member of the 1987 Constitutional Commission, criticized Ombudsman Samuel Martires’ Memorandum Circular No. 1 issued last year which limited access to SALNS only to the public official who filed the SALN or his/her authorized representative, a court which issued a lawful order or the Ombudsman’s field investigation units, bureaus or offices.

In other instances, the memo said, a notarized letter of authority from the public official is required.

Monsod said this effectively limited access to SALNs to “public officials” who are not the “public” the framers of the Constitution contemplated.

“From the ConCom deliberations, the Ombudsman was never conceived as the protector of government officials from the people who want information about their qualifications for and performance in public office as well as their business interests and financial connections,” he said during an online forum organized by the Right to Know Right Now! Coalition. 

“It seems that the present Ombudsman has forgotten that in a democracy, the people are the principals and the government officials are their agents, and not the other way around. Such as the rules on public disclosure which have evolved to limitations in the content and access to the SALNs as to put SALNs beyond the reach of the people in the constitutional design to make government officials accountable to them,” he added.

Malou Mangahas, co-convenor of the coalition, pointed out that Duterte was the first president in 30 years not to disclose his SALN.

Mangahas, formerly executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, said Duterte stopped disclosing his SALNs and those of his family in 2018, when PCIJ did a story about the first family’s wealth.

Recently, lawyer Dino de Leon tried to secure the President’s SALN from both Malacanang and the Ombudsman but he was given the run-around.

Martires, Mangahas added, is the first Ombudsman to restrict access to SALNs and to threaten jailtime against those who would comment on SALNs.

OMBUDSMAN’S SALN RESTRICTIONS

“Ang memo circular number 1 ng Ombudsman is an encumbrance on the people’s right to know. It contravenes provisions of the SALN Law, Republic Act 6713 na nagsasaad, obligasyon nila na magrelease ng SALN,” Mangahas said.

Section 8 of Republic Act No. 6713 imposes on public officials and employees the obligation to submit SALNs while the public has the right to know the contents of these SALNs as well as the financial and business interests of the pulic officials, their spouses and their unmarried children below 18 years old.

This provision is based on Article XI, section 17 of the Constitution requiring the President and other high-ranking officials to disclose their SALNs to the public.

Former senator Orly Mercado, one of the authors of RA 6713 said Martires’ proposed changes to the law would amount to a “killer amendment.”

Martires had cited personal grievance over the alleged misuse of his SALN to justify his proposal.

Mercado said that while he understood where Martires was coming from, the solution is to provide an explanation and not to remove an “important piece of armamentation” on the part of the public.

“Kung walang itinatago, walang dapat ikatakot,” he said. 

Mangahas pointed out that what happens on the ground is that the SALNs of low-ranking government officials are easily accessible at the Civil Service Commission while the SALNs of government officials with salary grade 27 and up are well-guarded by the Ombudsman.

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TIGHTENING OF OTHER INSTITUTIONS

This action on the part of the Ombudsman, she added, has led to other institutions tightening their hold on SALNs like the Supreme Court, the Senate and the House of Representatives which release only summaries and not the SALNs themselves.

Recently, the Supreme Court in a ruling in February this year but released only in July, junked on procedural grounds a lawyer’s petition questioning the legality of Martires’ memo circular.

The Ombudsman’s denial was based on the failure of petitioner Louis Biraogo to present an actual case since the denial of his request was merely verbal. 

SC also cited the doctrine of hierarchy of courts, which means the case should have been filed before the regional trial courts first.

“The Ombudsman and the Supreme Court have chosen to defer to the concern of their peers in government that the SALN can be weaponized to criticize and find ways and means to destroy their reputation, as if they cannot call on the full range and weight of the government’s capability for protection and sanctions if the right to information is misused or abused,” Monsod said of the Ombudsman’s and the high court’s recent decisions.

He said he was disappointed with the Supreme Court for being selective among their ranks — restoring the retirement benefits of former Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was removed due to SALN issues through impeachment but not the retirement benefits of former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who was ousted through quo warranto also because of SALN issues.

“Since 2016, they issued 5 questionable decisions to defer to the President and they’re still on it. I hope they will change their minds and have another set of golden moments in its history which we have had with them. It’s time, it’s time for them to declare their independence,” he said, without mentioning what those 5 SC decisions were.

CHALLENGE TO GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS, CANDIDATES 

In the same forum, the Right to Know Right Now! Coalition challenged incumbent government officials and those who will be filing their certificates of candidacy to disclose their wealth and medical status, by recording live on video, observed by credible witnesses three waivers:

  • allowing access to SALNs or their equivalent
  • allowing access to bank records without conditions
  • allowing access to medical and health records with a confidentiality release form.

“The Constitution did not equivocate when it said: Public office is a public trust. Public officers and employees must at all times be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency, act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives,” coalition co-convenor lawyer Eirene Aguila said in a statement. 

Former Comelec Commissioner Luie Guia said the disclosure of SALNs and campaign finance records share the same underlying principle. 

“The wisdom of requiring SALN and the statement of contributions and expenditures (SOCE) plus the other mandated campaign finance reports proceeds from the most basic nature of public office being a public trust and the necessity, under a democracy, of transparency and accountable government,” he said.

Disclosure of SALNs could help effectively monitor use of money in political campaigns and be an interesting source of analysis and discussions, he said.

Both Monsod and the coalition shared the same parting words for those who are not prepared to disclose their SALNs.

“Perhaps, in lieu of going to an Ombudsman who appears to have lost its purpose, we should just tell those who want the power and the benefits of public office but are not willing to take the risks that go with it that they should not seek public office in the first place, for the sake of the country,” Monsod suggested.

“Again, if you cannot handle the risks of public office, don’t aspire for it,” Aguila said on behalf of the coalition.