SALNs futile if unchecked, int’l study says

Released by the World Bank and a UN agency, the study sheds light on an issue related to Chief Justice Renato Corona

FOR TRANSPARENCY. A study released by the World Bank and a United Nations agency stresses the important of income and asset disclosure. Screen grab from the report

MANILA, Philippines – It is likely futile to require public officials to disclose their Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) if such documents remain unchecked, a recent study by 2 international organizations said.

Published by the Stolen Asset Recovery (Star) Initiative of the World Bank (WB) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the study sheds light on an issue that has surfaced in the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona.

The WB and UNODC said the report, titled “Public Office, Private Interests: Accountability through Income and Asset Disclosure (IAD),” is the first global study of financial disclosure laws and practices.

“In countries with high levels of impunity or public cynicism surrounding issues of endemic corruption, an IAD system that is effective only in enforcing compliance with the requirement to submit a declaration, but not in detecting irregularities or enforcing sanctions for noncompliance, will likely fail to provide a credible deterrent or enforcement mechanism against corrupt behaviors,” the study said.

“To be dissuasive, therefore, sanctions should be both enforceable and proportionate,” it added.

IAD requires cooperation between law enforcement and other agencies, as well as the speedy prosecution of corruption cases, the report said.

Sanctions needed

If the government is unlikely to enforce criminal sanctions, it should impose administrative sanctions such as “suspension or barring from office, fines, and the publication of the names of noncompliant officials,” according to WB and UNODC.

Before Corona’s impeachment trial went on a break starting late last month, a key issue tackled by the impeachment court involved errors in Corona’s SALN. Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago wanted to settle the issue once and for all: When are SALN errors a result of negligence and when do they constitute an impeachable offense?  

In an earlier story, Rappler looked into this issue by checking related cases in the past

In a January 2011 decision, the SC’s 2nd division ruled there is an intent to deceive through one’s SALN when “the accumulated wealth becomes manifestly disproportionate to the employee’s income or other sources of income and the public officer/employee fails to propertly account (for) or explain his other sources of income.”

Needed vs corruption

Meanwhile, the WB and UNODC study said governments should mandate public officials to disclose their income, assets, and interests “if the fight against corruption is to succeed.”

“Citizens want officials to be honest about their income and assets, to ensure that they are not looting the public coffers or accumulating ill-gotten wealth,” said Star Initiative coordinator Jean Pesme. “This helps build a climate of integrity and trust towards senior public officials.”

The recent study also cited the benefits of public access to declarations like SALNs.

“How to strike a balance between public access to information and the right to privacy of filers — and how to address concerns in some jurisdictions about security risks — is a challenge faced by most systems. There is a wide consensus among practitioners that public access to information matters and that public officials do not enjoy the same right to privacy as do ordinary citizens,” the study said.

In the Philippines, for example, the SC has declared its justices’ SALNs as off-limits to the public. The practice “shows us an attitude toward public office: that power trumps scrutiny,” wrote Rappler editor at large Marites Dañguilan Vitug in a Thought Leaders piece last January. 

“It took an extraordinary event, the impeachment of the Chief Justice, to open a tightly shut door of the Supreme Court,” Vitug said.

Other officials, too

The failure to disclose SALNs is not only a problem involving the SC, wrote the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in its report “SC Justices, Ombudsman, House Keep SALNs Secret.”

“If one’s failure to disclose SALNs is now an impeachable offense, then a long list of officials should also now be expunged from public office, including Ombudsman Carpio-Morales and by their own assertion, even 185 of the 188 members of the 15th Congress who filed the impeachment complaint against Corona but have not disclosed copies of their own SALNs,” the PCIJ said.

The Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, or Republic Act No 6713, requires public officials to disclose their SALNs.

“Public officials and employees have an obligation to accomplish and submit declarations under oath of, and the public has the right to know, their assets, liabilities, net worth and financial and business interests including those of their spouses and of unmarried children under 18 years of age living in their households,” the law says. – Rappler.com