Sereno on 'pork' scam: Right to info empowers citizens

MANILA, Philippines – Citizens can do more than express their outrage over the loss of billions of their taxes to corruption in the pork barrel scam.

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno highlighted the citizens’ role in holding government officials accountable following the “massive public frauds to be perpetrated in our sad history.”

In a speech during the 3rd Integrity Summit, the chief magistrate of the Supreme Court said the constitutional right to information empowers citizens to hold government accountable.

“The ability of citizens to jumpstart investigations by the Ombudsman, [Commission on Audit] and even the [Department of Justice] is bolstered by their right to access information that may serve as basis for the prosecution of erring officials,” she said at the Makati Shangri-La hotel on Thursday, September 19.

Sereno said the Constitution does not make citizens “mere bystanders” in holding public officials accountable for their actions and the use of public funds.

“The Constitution empowers the people to take an active role in checking government by allowing citizens to access information of public concern. It goes further than most countries’ constitutions by including the right to be informed as part of the Bill of Rights.”

Sereno then cited the constitutional provision that gives citizens access to official records, documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, and government research data used as basis for policy development.

“Armed with enough information, the public may file complaints with the Ombudsman,” she said. “Let me stress that complaints can be filed in any form, including anonymous complaints.”

The Chief Justice said citizens can also request the Commission on Audit (COA) to conduct special and fraud audits without disclosing their identity.

Sereno made the remarks a day after the Senate committee on public information and mass media passed the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, which advocates said will institutionalize the right to know. FOI supporters said a law setting up systems and processes to access information, and penalties for the denial of requests is necessary.

The bill has been languishing in Congress for over a decade due to a lack of political will to push for its passage.

In discussing the right to information, Sereno said citizens go beyond exercising the right to free speech and expression.

“While the freedom to express outrage over perceived anomalies is part of the guaranteed freedoms of the sovereign people, it is not only this collective vocal expression but the proper functioning of the constitutional and statutory bodies that are mandated to address the misuse of public funds, that make for a truly functioning democracy, one where the rule of law prevails,” she said.

“Therein lies the Filipinos’ potential to experience genuine constitutionalism,” she said.

The pork barrel scam is an intricate web of corruption where lawmakers allegedly connived with fake non-governmental organizations to pocket millions of pesos in development funds. On Monday, the justice department filed before the Ombudsman its first batch of cases on the scam. Three senators and other representatives face a plunder complaint.

Last month, thousands came out in outrage in a nationwide anti-pork barrel protest called Million People March. 

‘Ombudsman, executive must ensure strong evidence’

Sereno talked about the role of the COA, the Ombudsman, the Anti-Money Laundering Council, and the executive and legislative branches of government in addressing the misuse of public funds.

She drew attention to the need for the Ombudsman and the executive to ensure that evidence will stand in court.

“The judiciary is prohibited from making decisions based on political considerations, not even in order to conform to public sentiment, especially in criminal proceedings. Thus, it is important that the public understand that it is the duty of the appropriate bodies, the executive and the Ombudsman to ensure that the law they invoke and the evidence they present suffice to authorize the judiciary to arrest, detain and convict.”

For example, she said that a person charged with plunder can be refused bail only when evidence of guilt is strong.

Sereno acknowledged that the court has to rule on the 4 petitions questioning the legality of the pork barrel. The High Court issued a temporary restraining order on the release of the remaining pork barrel funds in the 2013 budget and the Malampaya Funds.

“These will be heard and deliberated upon and it will be through the decision of the Court in those petitions that the voices of the justices, including mine, will be heard.”

Shouldn’t gov’t have performance targets?

Sereno also raised the possibility of setting targets for government agencies, including constitutional bodies like the COA, the Civil Service Commission and the Commission on Elections.

“All of you run your organizations to achieve Key Results Areas or Key Performance Indicators. Should not every government unit also be required to have set objectives? What role should the public play in setting out those objectives?”

She added, “If we have GNP or GDP targets, should we not also have public service delivery targets?”

Sereno issued a challenge to the public.

“What would we give up to make our democracy work? …. How much of this monitoring of projects, this demanding for reports, this plodding through the maze of documents that are produced, are we willing to do day in and day out until accountability is finally integrated into the very fabric of the lives of private citizens and public officials?

“How deeply do we believe that we can only shape our destiny as a people if we are willing to build in with painstaking patience, every nut, screw, bolt, and brick that make for a modern accountable government?”

“In the end, how much do we really love our country?” –