MANILA -- Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi has dethroned Public Works Secretary Mark Villar as the richest member of the Duterte cabinet in 2019.
This is according to the Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) of 26 out of the 29 Cabinet members that were available at the Malacañang Records Office as of Nov. 3. The office is the official repository of the SALNs of national executive officials including members of the cabinet, officials in the foreign service, and heads of government-owned and -controlled corporations, among other high-ranking officials.
The Malacañang Records Office was the only SALN repository agency that released the full 2019 SALNs of high-ranking officials to the public this year.
The SALN is a declaration under oath of a public official or employee’s assets, liabilities and net worth, as well as financial and business interests including those of the spouse and unmarried children below 18 years who are living in the same household.
All public officials and employees are required by law to submit their SALNs annually.
With a net worth of P1.43 billion as of December 2019, Cusi overtook Villar’s P1.41 billion. Villar was the richest cabinet member since 2016 up until 2018. He was richer than Cusi by only P22.74 million in 2018.
In 2019, however, Cusi’s net worth increased by P43.76 million because of an increase in the value of his personal properties, specifically “cash, placements, jewelries, furniture and fixtures, etc” compared to the year prior.
Villar’s net worth, meanwhile, fell by more than P800,000, from P1,408,281,794 in 2018 to P1,407,445,056 in 2019. The decrease could be attributed to the decrease in the value of his personal properties, from P1.23 billion in 2018 to P1.20 billion in 2019.
Cusi became a billionaire in 2017 “due to the sale of Starlite Ferries, Inc. (SFI),” a company owned by Cusi’s family, “to Chelsea Logistics Corporation” in November that year, DOE’s Public Affairs Bureau told ABS-CBN in 2019. His net worth jumped to P1.36 billion that year from just P163 million the year prior, or an increase of 778%.
Accountability of public officials
The requirement for all public officials and employees to submit and publicly disclose their assets, liabilities, and net worth is in the 1987 Constitution, specifically under Article XI, “Accountability of Public Officers.”
This is in accordance with the principle that all public officials and employees “must be accountable to the people” and “lead modest lives.”
Through the SALN, the public can track sudden changes in the wealth of public officials and identify real and potential conflicts of interest. The SALN is supposed to be a tool through which public officials can show that they have not used their positions to enrich themselves.
For lawyer Eirene Aguila, one of the conveners of the Right to Know, Right Now Coalition, public disclosure of the SALNs goes beyond merely looking for possible liabilities of public officials.
“It’s really an expression of the people wanting to breathe life to that principle in the Constitution, that all power emanates from the people and that public office is a public trust,” she said.
Two other laws contain provisions on SALN submission and disclosure: Republic Act (RA) No. 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act and Republic Act No. 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.
RA 6713 also set April 30 as the deadline for the annual filing of SALNs. Because of the pandemic however, the Civil Service Commission moved the deadline to Aug. 31. All departments and agencies, meanwhile, were given until Oct. 31 to submit the SALNs to their respective repository agencies.
As of Nov. 3, the Malacañang Records Office (MRO) had yet to receive the SALNs of National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Jr., Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, and DICT Secretary Gregorio Honasan II.
Club of billionaires, multi-millionaires
Among the 26 Cabinet members whose 2019 SALNs were available with the MRO as of Nov. 3, Cusi and Villar were the only billionaires.
Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez trailed them with nearly P370 million in net worth.
They were also the richest cabinet members in 2018. All three declared zero liabilities in both years.
Agrarian Reform Secretary John Castriciones, meanwhile, had the lowest net worth among the 26 cabinet members with P7 million.
A comparison of the declared net worth in 2019 and 2018 revealed that Science and Technology Secretary Fortunato de la Peña had the highest percentage increase in net worth at 159%, from P5 million in 2018 to P13 million in 2019. This could be attributed to the “sale of agricultural lands in Bulakan, Bulacan,” which resulted in an increase in declared cash (from P350,000 in 2018 to P7.55 million in 2019) and receivables (from P1.98 million in 2018 to P2.78 million in 2019).
Meanwhile, five other Cabinet members, aside from Villar, declared decreases in their net worth in 2019 from the year prior: Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr., Tourism Secretary Bernadette Puyat, Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, and Social Welfare Secretary Rolando Bautista.
Nearly half had zero liabilities
Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade had the highest amount of liabilities among the 26 cabinet members, with P128 million in loans. Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles followed with P41.09 million in liabilities from various financial institutions.
Presidential Communications and Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Martin Andanar came in third with P14.79 million in liabilities. This includes miscellaneous expenses (tuition fees, foreign and local trips, daily expenses, administration dues, club membership and city services) amounting to P12 million.
12 other Cabinet members declared zero liabilities in 2019.
While the Malacañang Records Office fully disclosed the SALNs of officials under its custody, other repository agencies have not been as forthcoming.
The Office of the Ombudsman, the repository agency of the SALN of the president, vice-president, and officials of constitutional bodies, issued a memorandum last September which effectively restricted the public’s access to the SALNs under its custody.
Memorandum Circular No. 1 prohibited the disclosure of the SALNs except to the declarant or his authorized representative, except if it is being ordered by a court due to a pending case, or if the request is being made by the Ombudsman’s field investigation unit for fact-finding investigation.
Any other person requesting for a copy of the SALN would need a notarized authorization from the SALN declarant, according to the memo.
Ombudsman Samuel Martires was quoted as saying that the SALN has been weaponized and used to damage a person’s reputation.
Before the issuance of the memo, ABS-CBN requested copies of the SALNs of President Rodrigo Duterte and Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo from the Office of the Ombudsman on Aug. 28, but was told more than two weeks later that all such requests were being reviewed by Ombudsman Samuel Martirez’s office.
ABS-CBN was able to obtain a copy of Robredo’s SALN from her office on Sept. 14, three days after it made the request.
The same could not be said for the President’s SALN.
Since the first week of October, ABS-CBN has been trying to request for a copy of the President’s SALN from the different offices under the Office of the President, but was not given any clear instruction where such a request could be made.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, in an Oct. 19 Malacañang Press Briefing, said that they would leave the disclosure of the President’s SALN to the Office of the Ombudsman. Ten days later, Roque said that he would ask the President if he would give a copy of his SALN, only to say nearly a week later that he was not able to take the matter up with him.
The House and the Senate have also imposed additional requirements on the public disclosure of the SALNs.
All requests for copies of the House of Representatives’ (HOR) SALNs would need to be approved by the House plenary. The lower house also imposes a P300 fee for each copy of the SALN.
Over at the Senate, meanwhile, a person who wanted copies of the senators’ SALNs would need to write each of the 24 senators. In the past, such a request could be filed with the Office of the Senate Secretary, the repository of the senators’ SALNs.
Both chambers do not accept “public interest” as a reason for granting access to the SALN.
The HOR SALN request form, for instance, states, “If public interest or public concern is cited, please justify how this will be served.”
The Senate SALN summary request form meanwhile, states that “general purposes such as “public interest/public concern” shall not be acceptable.”
Last Oct. 29, summaries of the Senators’ assets, liabilities, and net worth were posted on the Senate website
Requests for the SALNs of Supreme Court justices, on the other hand, require an approval by the en banc.
Against the spirit, letter of the law
Freedom of Information advocates have blasted these restrictions and additional requirements, saying that these go against the spirit and the letter of the law.
“[These requirements] really go against the very spirit of transparency and accessibility, and if you read our Constitution, in several parts of the Constitution, it makes it very clear that there is every intent to make our public officials accountable and to make the access of information easy,” Atty. Aguila of the Right to Know, Right Now Coalition said.
The way she sees it, any additional restrictions should only be about the process by which the public could avail of the SALN and “not to negate the act of being able to access the SALN.”
“The granting of the request to access the SALN is just an example of how, is a manifestation of how transparent the government truly is or how opaque it is,” Aguila said.