POSTSCRIPT / August 31, 2021 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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No vote for officials hiding their SALNs!

THERE must be a simple way to compel officials seeking election to a government post to make public their sworn Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs) for the two years prior to their filing of certificates of candidacy.

If there is no law or administrative rule requiring this aid to the checking of corruption in government, a citizens group can advocate making SALN disclosure one of the criteria that voters can use in vetting candidates.

Let’s not vote for officials who refuse to open their SALNs!

Why require the filing of SALNs if these are only hidden from reasonable scrutiny by taxpayers? Why the irony of the Ombudsman, the very guardian assigned to check and prosecute corrupt and unethical practices in government, blocking access?

Discussion on SALNs was rekindled by President Duterte’s announcing that he was running for vice president in 2022 and planning to then audit all government agencies, including his own office and the Commission on Audit itself.

This sensitive technical task is assigned by the Constitution to the independent Commission on Audit and to no other agency or official – neither to the president nor to the vice president.

There is a clamor for Duterte to open his SALNs for 2018 onwards while COA continues to report and raise questions over how his administration spent P67 billion budgeted last year for responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. That is just one of several areas of concern.

Reports also cite apparent overpricing and unwarranted transfer or parking of huge amounts to executive offices. The reports have raised questions about possible corruption, which Duterte claims to abhor.

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VICE President Leni Robredo said that Duterte need not wait till he becomes the vice president to audit the use of public funds. He can begin right now, she said, by disclosing his SALNs and showing transparency in his use of billons in taxpayers’ money.

In her weekly radio show on dzXL, Robredo pointed out that auditing public funds is not within the mandate of the Office of the Vice President.

“The mandate of the vice president is just succession,” she said. “Auditing is given to a constitutional body for independence… There are many other ways to show that you’re anti-corruption… Your SALN, that’s one of the biggest ways to show that there is no corruption.”

Applications of media and others for copies of Duterte’s SALNs, particularly those from 2018 onward, are being denied, breaking the practice of granting reasonable requests. Duterte has instructed other Executive officials not to release copies of their SALNs.

The Palace says it is up to the Office of the Ombudsman to release them. However, Ombudsman Samuel R. Martirez, an appointee of Duterte, has stopped the usual releasing of the documents as allowed by law.

(In the case of Robredo, obtained her SALN in July through a Freedom of Information request with her office. The request was granted “in the interest of transparency” after one working day.)

In barring access, Martirez said in September last year that the SALNs have been “weaponized”, which we take to mean they are being used by some persons to attack their enemies in government.

 Martirez theory of Ethical Relativity

WE recall saying here on Sept.24 last year that even the Ten Commandments can be “weaponized”. So do we close our eyes to all our trespasses until Yahweh descends again on Mount Sinai and hands over an amended Decalogue?

We’re disappointed that Ombudsman 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.

Defending his office budget in September last year before the House, Martirez said that RA 6713 — the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees — has become a “weapon” of political combat.

He issued a memorandum circular dated Sept. 1, 2020, restricting the release of copies of the SALNs on file. He also stopped lifestyle checks on officials, saying that some provisions of the law were open to question.

When Malacañang is asked for copies of the SALNs of President Duterte, his spokesman now points to the Ombudsman as if to say that his boss does not mind making the documents public but that Martirez is holding them.

The public, including the media to whom the law expressly gives access to SALNs, may have to wait until RA 6713 is amended to ease access or till Martirez retires after his seven-year term ends on Aug. 6, 2025.

Under his memorandum, SALN copies 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.

Media seeking copies 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 their content.

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

To Martirez, a government official who seems to have “distorted values or priorities” and to live 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 anyone’s lifestyle, if he has not been proven to have stolen anything?)

“What is simple living to me may not be simple living to you or anyone else,” he added.

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 August 31, 2021)

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