Ombudsman wants transactions between family members excluded from SALN

Benise Balaoing, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 21 2021 02:16 PM | Updated as of Oct 21 2021 02:29 PM

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MANILA – Ombudsman Samuel Martires is seeking the exclusion of transactions between members of a family from declaration of public officials' statements of assets, liabilities and net worth, a group said Thursday.

Atty. Eirene Aguila, a leader of the Right to Know Right Now coalition, said excluding transactions from SALNs is the most problematic amendment to the SALN Law aside from a proposed ban on commentaries on SALNs. 

"I think, next to the fact that you’re…throwing shade on commentaries, this is the most problematic amendment. Why? Because I think the value of the SALN, more than talking about illegal wealth, more than talking about the wealth of a politician or public official, is actually looking at the possible motivations they might have, which you might see in possible conflicts of interest,” Aguila said on ANC Rundown. 

“I mean, 90 percent, 80 percent of our provinces are run by political dynasties so are we saying that the transaction between the mayor who’s married to the vice mayor whose child is a councilor, we can no longer expect to see those?” she said.

“I think that’s where the problem lies because there’s very little to check on what motivates them to decide on policy. We can’t ask because it’s not declared."

Transparency advocates have rejected many of Martires’ proposed amendments to the “SALN law,” based on a draft bill that his office had submitted to Congress and obtained by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

The PCIJ reported that the biggest opposition was to the proposal to jail anyone who makes commentaries on the SALN.

This is a proposal that Martires already voiced out in a September hearing at the House of Representatives.

"I think it’s very problematic the moment you bear down on people making commentaries on anything that’s related to government whether it’s the SALN, whether it’s the president’s health, whether it’s the submission or non-submission of reports or ongoing investigations,” Aguila said.

“I think it’s every citizen’s right to give commentaries, to ask. And the moment we put it into a law that there is some kind of restriction, we go against the very spirit of the Constitution that demands accountability, disclosure, transparency, and ease of flow of information,” she said.

Aguila also flagged amendments that removed the disclosure responsibilities on the part of government official’s relatives.

"When you talk about the fact that you’re not requiring them anymore to outright declare relatives, there’s some kind of discretion left on the public officials. The wording is couched in a way that, if possible conflicts may arise, we leave the discretion up to the public official. Of course they will, in good faith say, ‘I don’t believe there’s any conflict of interest.’” 

“And when there’s too much discretion left on anyone, we know how dangerous that could be.”

Aguila said this also may make it easier for government officials to hide their motives why they do the things they do. 

“You know, they might deny a franchise that might run contrary to their business which they gave to a child of theirs, that they don’t have to declare.”

“So, not just hiding wealth but we don’t exactly understand what motivates your public officials. You don’t exactly know why they decide the way they do. Is it to protect their property from possible rezoning because that’s where they live? That’s why they deny a rezoning ordinance?”

Another proposed amendment flagged by transparency advocates is excluding “real property used solely and exclusively as the personal residence or family home of the reporting individual or his or her family” from the SALN declaration.

“Again talking about political dynasties, how many residences are they allowed? You have political dynasties, husbands and wives, living in two different districts. Will that be considered two residences? And what we mean exactly by used exclusively for personal, as a personal residence?”

For Aguila, these exclusions run contrary to the principles behind Republic Act 6713, or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials. 

“The principles behind (RA) 6713 is we’re able to put, hold our public officials to the highest form of ethics to see if they lead modest lives, but, you remove these things, it runs contrary to the principles in 6713,” she said.

“There’s just too much carving out from the SALN. And when you carve out too much, it’s a very slippery slope since it leaves the possibility to unbridled discretion on the part of the public official.”

Aguila said that Martires’ apparent attitude towards the disclosure of SALNs does not bode well for a democracy.

“I think, generally, when it’s very difficult to ask, and it makes you look bad to ask--whether it’s the Office of the Ombudsman, Office of the President, or other offices that hold the records-- I think that’s very… it doesn’t bode well for a democracy, especially as we’re heading to election season.”

“When we have to be able to be critical, to be able to be more analytical, of our public officials, I think making it seem that asking is a wrong thing, I think [that] sends a very dangerous message,” she said.

--ANC, 21 October 2021