MANILA — The Office of the Ombudsman, the Commission on Audit (COA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have signed a memorandum of agreement which would designate "resident ombudsmen" in "graft-prone" government agencies, the Justice department announced Thursday.
Five agencies were identified in the document as prone to graft — the Department of Public Works and Highways, the Bureau of Customs, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the Land Registration Authority and state health insurer PhilHealth, although it left room for other agencies that may be identified as "graft-prone" or "with high corruption risk."
ROLE OF RESIDENT OMBUDSMEN
In these agencies, resident ombudsmen who are either DOJ prosecutors or COA auditors will be designated as "resident ombudsmen," a revival of the the Ombudsman’s old program where watchdogs and implementors of corruption prevention programs will be assigned to certain agencies.
These resident ombudsmen are expected to bring front-line services to these agencies, which include receiving complaints against officials and employees of the agencies where they will be deployed.
Their term will end on June 30, 2022 during the termination of the MOA.
Resident ombudsmen are supposed to ensure that 4 original copies of complaints with supporting documents are filed, forwarding 1 copy each to the DOJ secretary, the Ombudsman and the COA chairperson while keeping a copy for safekeeping subject to confidentiality.
But their endorsements of the complaint however "shall not contain any determination as to the formalities or merits of the complaint or the charges alleged therein so as not to pre-empt the evaluation of the appropriate office."
Does this mean the role of the resident ombudsmen is merely to forward complaints?
"We'll work out the details. MOA pa lang naman 'yan," Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said when asked for clarification.
It is not immediately clear from the MOA how the role of resident ombudsmen would differ from COA's resident auditors and if resident ombudsmen can initiate their own probes.
A similar idea will also be deployed by the newly-launched National Anti-Corruption Coordinating Council (NACCC) led by the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission which aims to establish anti-corruption committees in very agency, in every level of government — down to the barangays.
It is not clear where the NACCC's funding will come from but with respect to resident ombudsmen, additional compensation will be provided by their mother agency while supplies and other expenses will be shouldered by the agencies where they will be assigned.
Under the MOA, the justice secretary determines jurisdiction over the criminal aspect of the complaint.
If the crime or if one of the respondents to a complaint falls under the jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan, the DOJ secretary shall forward it to the Ombudsman.
In all other cases, the DOJ takes jurisdiction.
The DOJ and the Ombudsman will coordinate as to who should take the lead in terms of preliminary investigation and prosecution of cases.
For administrative cases, it is the Ombudsman who will determine 6 actions:
- Ombudsman to conduct administrative adjudication
- Refer the complaint to agency concerned
- Refer the complaint to COA for audit investigation
- Refer to Ombudsman’s field investigation office/unit for fact-finding investigation
- Consider the complaint as a request for assistance, or
- Dismiss the complaint
WHY ONLY 5 AGENCIES?
But why were only 5 agencies names as "graft-prone"?
DOJ Assistant Secretary Neal Bainto said the 5 agencies were identified based on "prior resolutions of the Task Force Against Corruption."
"Under the MOA, the OMB, the COA, and the DOJ will deliberate to which agencies the resident ombudsmen will be deployed," he said that additional agencies named will be made public.
Among the agencies not named in the MOA is the DOJ’s own Bureau of Immigration whose officials and employees were implicated in the so-called "pastillas scam".
Under the scheme, Chinese entered the Philippines as tourists and later worked for Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGO) hubs, paying immigration personnel around P10,000, wrapped in paper resembling a Filipino delicacy.
Around 80 Immigration personnel were preventively suspended by the Ombudsman but they have since returned to work because preventive suspension could not last beyond 6 months.
"Cases have already been filed against those involved in the pastillas scheme before the DOJ and the Ombudsman, and the Bureau of Immigration is under close scrutiny of the Department," Bainto explained.
"Nonetheless, and as mentioned in the MOA, the OMB, the COA, and the DOJ can deliberate and include other agencies in the list, even including the Bureau of Immigration, where resident ombudsmen will be deployed," he added.
Also not mentioned in the memorandum are the agencies such as the Department of Health (DOH) and the Department of Budget and Management Procurement Service that were implicated in the allegedly overpriced purchase of pandemic supplies now being investigated in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Guevarra earlier said they will "take the cue from the Ombudsman" in deciding whether to initiate its own probe, unlike in past controversies such as that involving PhilHealth where the DOJ acted quickly to order NBI to conduct its own investigation.
These probes led to filing of complaints.
But the DOJ took a different approach with the allegedly anomalous pandemic contracts, saying they will wait for the Ombudsman Samuel Martires "out of courtesy to him" since he will be deputizing prosecutors and auditors as resident ombudsmen.
"I understand that the OMB [Ombudsman] had been conducting a related fact-finding even before the Senate started its inquiry," Guevarra said in a message exchange with reporters.
Martires made the same claim earlier Thursday during the House budget hearing.
Will the DOJ start probing anomalies in the pandemic deals?
Guevarra said they will "continue to observe the Senate proceedings until everyone has been duly heard on the factual issues. The House of Representatives, I understand, will also conduct its own inquiry soon."
He did clarify however whether the Philippine Red Cross, a non-governmental entity, can be the subject of a COA audit, in connection with the President’s earlier statement he wants COA to audit the NGO.
"Under the constitution the COA has the power to examine on a post-audit basis all accounts pertaining to the expenditure or use of fund by any non-governmental entity receiving subsidy or equity, directly or indirectly, from or through the government. The Philippine Red Cross is one such entity receiving subsidy or equity from the government through the instrumentality of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office."
Duterte made the remark in response to criticisms from Philippine senator and Philippine Red Cross head Sen. Richard Gordon over his handling of the pandemic.
The Senate probe on alleged anomalous pandemic procurement contracts entered into by the DOH will continue Friday.