Ombudsman Samuel Martires stood firm on his controversial memorandum circular that restricted public access to Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs), saying they have been weaponized.
“Nagiging weaponized ang SALN, ginamit po ito na means para siraan ang isang tao o siraan ang isang kalaban sa pulitika,” Martires said on Tuesday, September 22, during the House of Representatives’ deliberations on the Office of the Ombudsman’s 2021 budget.
ACT-Teachers Partylist Representative France Castro asked Martires about Memorandum Circular No. 1 S 2020 which discontinued years-long practice of the Office of the Ombudsman releasing SALNs of officials upon request. For years, media has been able to report on the SALNs of presidents, vice presidents, and heads of constitutional bodies.
In Martires’ memorandum circular, only the official can give consent to anyone who wants his or her SALN. President Rodrigo Duterte has been able to keep his 2018 and 2019 SALNs secret because of this.
What’s the legal basis?
In his circular, Martires provided as legal basis Republic Act 6713 or the Code of Conduct for Public Officials. He did not cite a specific provision.
Section 8(D)(b) of the law is very clear in that SALNs can be reported on by media. It says: “It shall be unlawful for any person to obtain or use any statement filed under this Act for any commercial purpose other than by news and communications media for dissemination to the general public.”
But Martires cited another provision.
“May provision sa RA 6713 na ang SALN gagamitin mo sa mabuting intensyon (there is a provision in RA 6713 where you can only use it for good intentions), you cannot use SALN if it’s against moral or public policy,” said Martires.
The Ombudsman was referring to Section 8(D)(a) which says: “It shall be unlawful for any person to obtain or use any statement filed under this Act for any purpose contrary to morals or public policy.”
Martires said there is no law that authorizes the repository like the Office of the Ombudsman to release somebody else’s SALN. Martires said it is the official who shall consent to the release of his or her own SALN.
“Ang sabi ng FOI law ang sabi ang obligasyon ay nasa kawani ng pamahalaan (What the FOI law says is that the obligation is with the government official),” said Martires.
What Martires was referring to is not a law (there is no Freedom of Information or FOI law) but President Rodrigo Duterte’s FOI executive order, which says that “all public officials are reminded of their obligation to file and make available for scrutiny their Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) in accordance with existing laws, rules and regulations, and the spirit and letter of this Order.”
Martires said previous media reporting on officials’ SALNs have had innuendos that wealth increases meant the official stole public funds.
“May innuendo na may ginawa kang kalokohan eh kawawa naman ang opisyal ng gobyerno na lumilitaw sa dyaryo na nagnakaw ng pera,” said Martires.
(There’s innuendo that you did something irregular, so I pity the official who is made to appear on newspapers as having stolen money.)
‘Blow to transparency and accountability’
Martires added that the Office of the Ombudsman does not need SALNs to prosecute under graft or even plunder, saying that “kung maituturo nila saan namin puwedeng gamitin yung SALN ay gagawin po namin ‘yun (if they can point out to us where we can use SALNs then we will do so.)”
On the contrary, the Office of the Ombudsman heavily used Senator Bong Revilla’s SALNs in prosecuting the senator for plunder by pointing out unexplained wealth. Ombudsman prosecutors compared Revilla’s SALNs to bank deposits.
The Office of the Ombudsman, however, lost that case and Revilla was acquitted of plunder. Revilla is still on trial for graft.
The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) said Martires’ circular “has dealt another blow to transparency and accountability.”
“As SALN custodians become more and more restrictive, journalists lose a key document crucial in investigations that have shed light on the wealth and business interests of government officials, including past presidents like Estrada, Arroyo, Aquino, and the incumbent, Duterte,” said the PCIJ in a statement.
“The Ombudsman is supposed to protect the people, not protect officials who might be using public office for private gain,” the PCIJ added.
Congress had also become more strict, requiring request forms to be notarized.
The Supreme Court, which used to release summaries of justices’ SALNs, has also stopped doing so. Request forms also have to be notarized.
The Supreme Court is a peculiar body because there is a decision that imposed strict guidelines for obtaining justices’ full SALNs, which entails a justification for the purpose.
In 2019, Rappler and other groups were denied by the en banc in their request for the 2018 full SALNs of the magistrates.
Two previous chief justices have been ousted because of problems stemming from their SALNs – the late Renato Corona for non-disclosure of peso and dollar bank deposits, and Maria Lourdes Sereno for not filing SALNs when she was a law professor at the University of the Philippines.
Corona was ousted via an impeachment trial, while Sereno was ousted through the unprecedented quo warranto.
The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) has asked for Associate Justice Marvic Leonen’s SALN to attempt a quo warranto against him, too, but the request was unanimously denied by the en banc. – Rappler.com