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Testing the Ombudsman

The Corona impeachment trial will test the mettle of the Ombudsman - and her independence

TELL ALL. Carpio-Morales will have to explain why she probed Corona, a former colleague at the Supreme Court. Source:http://www.senate.gov.ph/

MANILA, Philippines – The impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona could test the mettle not only of the beleaguered head of the judiciary, but also of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales.

On Monday, May 14, Morales testified on Corona’s alleged US$10 million deposits in various accounts. Her testimony is widely seen as the smoking gun in the 4-month-old trial, one that could tighten the case of the prosecution, whose motion for the disclosure of Corona’s dollar accounts was blocked by the Supreme Court (SC).

Dean Jose Manuel Diokno of the De La Salle College of Law said Morales will not be intimidated. “I think she’s a fighter. I think if she is put on the witness stand, she will say what she has to say,” he said. 

This would be Morales’s first open-court battle as an Ombudsman. She has yet to show her grit as the country’s chief graft-buster. As a Supreme Court associate justice, she was known for her pointed, blunt questions.

One occasion gave Morales an opportunity to show her legal skills in open court, but she skipped it.

Garcia deal

After assuming the post in July 2011, Morales asked the Sandiganbayan to nullify the plea bargain deal that her predecessor Merceditas Gutierrez reached with retired Maj Gen Carlos Garcia in 2010. The deal allowed Garcia to get away with plunder, critics said.

Garcia’s case was Morales’s baptism of fire, so to speak.

But while she did submit a position paper showing her opposition to the plea bargain deal, Morales did not personally appear before the Sandiganbayan to argue her points. The court ended up noting her submission as mere “manifestation.”

Much to the dismay of the critics of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Morales did not file a plunder case against her.  

She junked the proposed plunder charges against Arroyo in connection with a billion-peso sale of an Iloilo airport in 2007. She also opted to charge the now incumbent Pampanga representative with only a case of graft – not plunder – for her alleged role in the botched $329-million NBN-ZTE government computerization deal.

Yet, the Ombudsman has vowed to go after the “big fish.” Almost a year into her term, expectations are high.

Can she prove that Corona is one “big fish?”

Steps taken 

Morales inherited an institution that atrophied under its former leader, Merceditas Gutierrez, who was appointed in 2005 by Mrs Arroyo. Gutierrez was accused of protecting the former president and her allies.

When she became Ombudsman, Morales decided to make her office open to the public and other government departments.

In April, Morales signed a memorandum of agreement with Justice Secretary Leila De Lima which aimed “to simplify procedures to be observed by the OMB [Office of the Ombudsman] and the DOJ for a more efficient and effective investigation and prosecution.”

She also linked up with the Commission on Audit by forming a joint investigation team to expedite the investigation and prosecution of cases related to fraud audit reports.  

Morales also wanted the Office of the Ombudsman to be more visible and accessible. She is working with local government units to establish “ombudsman desks” in city halls as part of a public assistance project. Through these “ombudsman desks,” people may file complaints against government employees and air their grievances.

To fast-track the resolution of cases, she also opened slots for over 100 prosecutors and investigation officers, something Gutierrez reportedly chose not to pursue in her time.

Proving independence

Morales vowed that her office would uphold transparency and independence.

But when the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) requested the Office of the Ombudsman for copies of the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of President Benigno Aquino III, Vice President Jejomar Binay and Ombudsman officials, the media organization was rebuffed.

The PCIJ said that the Office of the Ombudsman explained to them that there was no legitimate reason to disclose the curriculum vitae of some of the agency’s officials.

However, Morales herself released her SALN after media organizations made a request. Her 2010 SALN showed she has P40 million worth in assets.

“The Ombudsman must be independent, one of unquestionable integrity, and willing to face the rigorous task of restoring faith in our recovering institutions by ensuring that the corrupt are held accountable for their misdeeds,” Aquino said in 2011, upon reaching his decision to appoint Morales. He believed the former magistrate is up to the task.

Now that the Ombudsman is wading into political waters – as the impeachment trial is both a legal and political process, a sui generis or a class on its own – her independence will be put under scrutiny.

In 2010, then SC Justice Morales concurred in a ruling that said the Office of the Ombudsman had no jurisdiction in a criminal complaint filed against retired Chief Justice Hilario Davide and retired Justice Alicia Austria-Martinez. (Lawyer Oliver Lozano filed a graft complaint against Davide and Austria-Martinez for overturning a Court of Appeals decision on a legal dispute involving a University of the Philippines property.)

SC spokesman Jose Midas Marquez mentioned the crux of this decision in an interview with the Philippine Star. “If a complaint against an impeachable officer is unwarranted for lack of legal basis and for clear misapplication of law and jurisprudence, the Ombudsman should spare these officers from the harassment of an unjustified investigation.”

The SC also said that it was the Ombudsman itself, during the time of Simeon Marcelo, which released a memorandum saying the Office of the Ombudsman should stay away from complaints against justices and other members of the Supreme Court.

The SC ruled then that while the Ombudsman can investigate members of the judiciary for violations of the anti-graft and corrupt practices act, only the SC can review the “legal correctness of the official acts of Justices of the Supreme Court.”

The allegations against Corona, however, did not stem from his official acts as a magistrate. He was accused of betraying public trust because he allegedly failed to truthfully declare his assets in his SALN.

But also  in the same decision, the SC said that impeachable officials can only be investigated for criminal cases after they are removed from their respective posts. 

How will Morales address possible questions about her contradicting actions on this issue?

Mrs Corona, too

Her independence could also be challenged, as the defense could say that she has been running against the Corona couple because that’s what Aquino wants.

Take note that Morales also pursued a separate case filed against Corona’s wife, Mrs Cristina Corona.

In 2009, the Ombudsman filed a case of misuse of public funds against Mrs Corona in connection with her stint as head of John Hay Management Corp, but she did not submit a comment as required. Gutierrez was still the Ombudsman then.

In December 2011, Morales pursued the case and told her to file a comment in 10 days.

Now, she has also started a probe on the Chief Justice, with whom she has disagreed on in a number of cases while they were still at the SC. 

Indeed, this trial could very well be the avenue for Morales to show that she did not fall victim to politics, the way her predecessor did. – Rappler.com

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