The Office of the Ombudsman filed a mere 117 cases before the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan during the pandemic-hit 2020, its lowest number of filings in over a decade.
Based on data from 2005 to 2020 published by the Sandiganbayan's Judicial Records Division on Wednesday, January 27, the Ombudsman's low mark was set in 2007 with only 93 filed cases. The 2020 Ombudsman tally was the 2nd lowest for that period.
That low record in 2007 was set when Merceditas Gutierrez was Ombudsman during the term of president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
The Ombudsman's filing rate started to plunge in 2018 when President Rodrigo Duterte's appointee – retired Supreme Court justice Samuel Martires – took over. On the first year of his watch, the Ombudsman filed only 739 cases, a stark contrast to the 2,513 in 2017.
In 2019, the number of cases dropped again to 198. Then the pandemic hit in 2020 and the case filings dipped to a 13-year low.
Martires also requested the Sandiganbayan to cancel hearings in 2020, which likewise resulted in a lower disposition rate for the anti-graft court.
In 2020, the Sandiganbayan only disposed of 340 cases.
Martires had earlier told Rappler that the canceled hearings meant to give Sandiganbayan the chance to catch up with its caseload, which stood at 4,135 in 2020.
But even though the Sandiganbayan was disposing over a thousand since 2017 with roughly the same caseload, their disposition rate severely dropped in 2020.
"Had the hearings in the cases, particularly for the reception of defense evidence, proceeded normally, most of these cases could have been submitted for decision," Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang told reporters on Wednesday.
"The Court has actually resumed hearing cases and will vigorously do so but not in the number pre-pandemic," said Tang.
The low number of filed cases was brought up during the congressional hearing of the Office of the Ombudsman's budget, with progressive lawmaker Carlos Zarate pointing out that it could indicate that prosecutors were "less eager" to pursue charges.
"The reason for this is they filed quality cases, not like before when they filed and filed even though most were dismissed," said Zamboanga Del Norte 1st District Representative Romeo Jalosjos in a mix of English and Filipino.
Jalosjos was the Ombudsman's budget sponsor. Budget sponsors speak on behalf of the agencies during floor deliberations.
During the pandemic, Martires also issued a memorandum to prosecutors to review which cases they could drop.
This was all aligned to his policy of a less criminal treatment of cases, focusing instead on administrative liabilities of officials.
Martires also stopped holding lifestyle checks.
In the 2019 corruption perception index of Transparency International, Philippines ranked 113, down 14 places from 2018 when Philippines ranked 99.
Zarate asked whether the low rate of filing contributed to the high perception of corruption in the country.
"Hindi ho kaya malaki rin ang naging papel ng Ombudsman para magkaroon ng perception of corruption dahil po sa parang naging malamya or hindi proaktibong papel in running after corrupt officials?" said Zarate.
(Could the Ombudsman have played a big role in the perception of corruption because it seems passive or not proactive enough to run after corrupt officials?)
Speaking for the Ombudsman, Jalosjos said: "The Office of the Ombudsman is reactive and not preventive, it's not in the function of the Ombudsman to prevent a crime, but to react to filed cases." – Rappler.com