POSTSCRIPT / September 24, 2020 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Ombudsman must enforce SALN law

EVEN the Ten Commandments can be “weaponized” and abused, so do we close our eyes to all our trespasses until Yahweh descends again on Mount Sinai and hands over an amended Decalogue?

We find it disturbing that Ombudsman Samuel R. Martires, who we expect to stand as the vanguard in the campaign against corruption and unethical practices in government, seems hesitant if not unwilling to lead the fight.

While defending the budget of his office on Tuesday, Martirez told the House appropriations committee that RA 6713 — the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees — has become a “weapon” of political combat.

Martirez said: “Sa ekspiryensiya po ng Ombudsman, na-weaponize po ang SALN. Ginamit po ito na means para siraan ang isang tao, isang kalaban sa pulitika. (In the experience of the Ombudsman, the SALN was weaponized. It was used against a political enemy).”

The Ombudsman has issued a memorandum circular dated Sept. 1, 2020, restricting the release of copies of the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) required by RA 6713. He also stopped lifestyle checks on officials after finding some provisions of the law questionable.

Whenever Malacañang is asked about the SALNs of President Duterte, his spokesman conveniently points to the Ombudsman as if to say that his boss does not mind making the documents public but that the Ombudsman is holding them.

Martirez proposed that the law be amended, because “there really are provisions there na kung hindi malabo walang hulog sa logic (if not vague, seem to have no logic).”

With Martirez being the Ombudsman, the public, including the media to whom the law expressly gives access to SALNs, may have to wait till RA 6713 is amended along his views.

Under his memorandum, copies of SALNs may be released only to (1) the officials who filed them, or their representatives, (2) a court, in relation to a case, and (3) the Ombudsman’s field investigators.

The restriction has the effect of a total embargo on the examination of SALNs at all levels. Since the blackout has been applied to the President, it must apply to everybody else in government.

The media must present a notarized letter from the official whose SALN they want to see. The memorandum cites RA 6713 as its basis for this rule, yet the same law explicitly allows journalists to secure copies of SALNs and report on them.

The filing of SALNs aims to discourage graft and corruption, but this is negated or rendered meaningless when the corresponding right of the people to access and to know is denied them.

For reference, Section 8 (C) of RA 6713 provides accessibility as follows:

“Accessibility of documents. — (1) Any and all statements filed under this Act, shall be made available for inspection at reasonable hours.

“(2) Such statements shall be made available for copying or reproduction after 10 working days from the time they are filed as required by law.

“(3) Any person requesting a copy of a statement shall be required to pay a reasonable fee to cover the cost of reproduction and mailing of such statement, as well as the cost of certification.

“(4) Any statement filed under this Act shall be available to the public for a period of 10 years after receipt of the statement. After such period, the statement may be destroyed unless needed in an ongoing investigation.”

The abuses and “weaponization” that Martirez dreads have been anticipated under Section 8 (D) prohibiting certain acts: “It shall be unlawful for any person to obtain or use any statement filed under this Act for (a) any purpose contrary to morals or public policy; or (b) any commercial purpose other than by news and communications media for dissemination to the general public.”

The reformist context of RA 6713 is reflected in Section 4: “(h) Simple living. — Public officials and employees and their families shall lead modest lives appropriate to their positions and income. They shall not indulge in extravagant or ostentatious display of wealth in any form.”

Section 2 lays down a policy to promote a high ethical standard in government: “Public officials and employees shall at all times be accountable to the people and shall discharge their duties with utmost responsibility, integrity, competence, and loyalty, act with patriotism and justice, lead modest lives, and uphold public interest over personal interest.”

This is in line with Article XI (Accountability of Public Officers) of the Constitution saying: “Section 1. 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.”

But to Martirez, a government official with “distorted values or priorities” who lives beyond his means cannot be immediately accused of corruption.

Ano hong pakialam natin?” he asked. “Sino tayo para husgahan ang taong ito… anong pakialam natin sa buhay ng may buhay kung hindi naman nagnanakaw?” (Why would we care? Who are we to judge a person, someone’s business, if that person was not proven to have stolen anything.)

He pointed out: “What is simple living to me may not be simple living to you or anyone.”

Martirez was among the eight Supreme Court justices who voted in favor of the quo warranto petition filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida to oust then-Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno in a case that also involved (her) SALNs.

If indeed President Duterte abhors corruption in government, he should examine Martirez’s Theory of Ethical Relativity and the distortions it has wrought on the political space-time continuum.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 24, 2020)

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