Ombudsman eyes more powers, key changes

Aries C. Rufo
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales is embarking on a campaign to get public support for a more powerful, better-funded Ombudsman

MANILA, Philippines – Considered one of the weakest anti-corruption agencies in the world, the Office of the Ombudsman is pushing for expanded powers and more funds to make it more efficient in running after the corrupt in government. 

The Ombudsman has been plagued with low conviction rate since it was formed in 1988, largely due to limited powers and resources attached to its huge task of gathering evidence and establishing air-tight cases against erring public officials.

It also suffers from a high turnover of personnel, who eventually join other government agencies or the private sector that offer better pay.

Today, however, the Ombudsman aims to solicit public support for its ambitious plan to strengthen its capacity through various projects and legislative campaigns.

Among these is the plan of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales to have the Ombudsman charter amended so it acquires more investigative and prosecutorial powers. 

She wants her office to be allowed to use wiretapping an investigative tool in high-profile cases such as plunder, anti-graft and corrupt practices and forfeiture of ill-gotten wealth. 

Under a  proposed bill, the Ombudsman is pushing for access to bank and non-bank records and other transactions such as deposits, trusts and investments “even prior to the filing of the case” against public officials before the court.

The Ombudsman also wants the power to access government offices to retrieve evidence for investigative purposes.

To retain and attract competent personnel, Morales is pushing for higher budget so it can pay investigators and lawyers with higher salaries.

“We are not asking for the moon and the stars,” said graft investigation officer Fernando Mendoza, who is part of the Ombudsman Legislative Advocacy Project. The aim of this campaign, he stressed, “is to increase the winnability of cases.” 

A multi-sector forum is scheduled this September, so various sectors can identify the problems besetting the Ombudsman and agree on how stakeholders can help drum up support for reforms. 

Credibility issues

The Ombudsman appears to have rebounded from credibility problems that beset Merceditas Gutierrez, who was previously impeached.

Gutierrez resigned in April 2011 as Ombudsman, a few days before the Senate, sitting as an impeachment court, was set to begin a trial against her. Throughout her term under the Arroyo government, Gutierrez was hounded by accusations that she was protecting then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, her allies and family, being a law classmate and friend of Mrs Arroyo’s husband, Mike.

Before this, however, the Office of the Ombudsman was perceived as independent. Under the helm of Gutierrez’s predecessor, Simeon Marcelo, the Ombudsman got its first taste of positive review. By the time Marcelo stepped down in 2005, the agency was enjoying high satisfaction ratings. 

Gutierrez was appointed in November 2005 to replace Marcelo, but by 2009, the Ombudsman’s credibility had hit rock bottom, coinciding with the corruption scandals involving the Arroyos.

Under Carpio-Morales, the Ombudsman began to recover its credibility once again.

As of 2013, based on the the Net Sincerity Ratings in Fighting Corruption survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations, the Ombudsman enjoyed a moderate sincerity rating, higher than the Sandiganbayan (+15), the Senate (-8) and the House of Representatives (-28)

Table of Net Sincerity Rating for the Ombudsman

2005 +22
2006 +5
2007 +9
2008 +4
2009 -8
2012 +39
2013 +23

*Source: SWS

In June this year, the Ombudsman filed plunder charges against 3 senators, several government officials and private persons over the pork barrel scandal that has outraged the nation. How the Office of the Special Prosecutor (OSP), which is under the Ombudsman, will handle the cases weighs heavily on Morales, who may be already retired when the cases are resolved.

Institutional weaknesses

Like other members of constitutional bodies, Morales’ tenure in office is 7 years. Appointed in 2011, she retires in 2018.

With the support of the President, she is in a position to leave a stronger Ombudsman, something that her predecessors have failed to do. 

When Marcelo assumed the post from Aniano Desierto in 2002, the institution was suffering from inertia. Desierto had to parry accusations that he engaged in transactional politics, and turned a blind eye to allegations of corruption under former President Fidel Ramos, who appointed him to the post.

Low confidence in the Ombudsman during this period discouraged competent lawyers from joining the office. By the time Desierto retired, the Ombudsman’s conviction rate was a mere 6%. 

Marcelo sought to change the negative perception by sending a message that he would be an independent Ombudsman. He sought to improve the prosecutorial skills of the OSP through trainings and active recruitment of lawyer. He also strengthened partnerships with civil society organizations. Conviction rate doubled.

Three years into office, Marcelo sought to concentrate on high-impact cases to send a chilling message to corrupt public servants. However, months after he identified these high-profile cases as priorities, he resigned for health reasons.

Under Gutierrez, the anti-graft body’s initial gains were put on the back burner and she was criticized for being soft on cases involving the allies of former President Arroyo. One of the high profile cases filed under her abbreviated term were the extortion and robbery cases filed against former Justice Secretary Hernando “Nani” Perez which were all dismissed by the Sandiganbayan. At least in one case – the robbery charge in connection with the alleged extortion attempt by Perez on former Manila congressman Mark Jimenez (aka Mario Crespo) –  the SC sustained the dismissal on grounds that the Ombudsman violated his right to due process when it took 5 years to conduct preliminary investigation into the case. Gutierrez was Perez’s former subordinate at the Department of Justice. (READ: SC affirms dismissal of Nani Perez’ robbery charge

Gutierrez’s resignation arrested the declining public confidence in the Ombudsman.

Perceived as tough and no-nonsense, Carpio-Morales is seen as independent. Her biggest achievement so far is the unprecedented filing of plunder cases against Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon “Bong’” Revilla over the alleged misuse of their pork barrel funds. Also charged as conspirator is the purported mastermind of the scam, Janet Lim Napoles.

Power and money

Now Carpio-Morales wants to sustain the initial gains.

She wants more powers for the Ombudsman to build tighter cases against public officials.

The anti-graft agency is also pushing for the enactment of laws that will strengthen the forfeiture powers of the state and penalize the enrichment of public officials through unlawful means. One major feature that the Ombudsman wants to include in the forfeiture law is the allocation of 35 % of the forfeited amount be earmarked as additional funding to the Ombudsman.

And there’s the issue of funding. 

While studies show that about 20 % of the budget is wasted on corruption, the premier agency tasked to go after erring public officials has been getting paltry budget on a yearly basis.

Year Appropriation for OMB Total new appropriation Percentage
2014 1,732,334,000 1,608,503,084,000 0.11%
2013 1,666,400,000 1,368,229,156,000 0.12%
2012 1,308,746,000 1,245,193,270,000 0.11%
2011 1,031,901,000 1,000,387,764,000 0.10%
2010 1,064,270,000 1,304,406,400,000 0.08%
2009 1,325,955,000 1,170,318,753,000 0.11%

From the table above, the Ombudsman on the average only gets around one-tenth of 1 percent of the national budget. Of the funding it gets, half easily goes to personal services and the other half goes to its investigative and case build-up. This means only half a billion peso a year is spent on the actual operations of going after graft and corruption.

Loy Vergara, a member of the Ombudsman legislative advocacy project, pointed out that the law creating the anti-graft agency has to be overhauled so the agency can adapt to the changing times and the more sophisticated means of hiding ill-gotten wealth. 

While the entry level for prosecutors and investigators is competitive, Vergara said one of the problems facing the Ombudsman is the high turnover of trained staff. On the average, prosecution and administrative staff only stay with the Ombudsman “for 2-3 years and transfer elsewhere” where pensions and benefits are more attractive.  

Vergara said many prosecutors only use the Ombudsman “as a training ground” thus depriving the Ombudsman of institutional skills and knowledge.

To further strengthen the Ombudsman, the anti-graft agency is pushing for a measure aligning the benefits and pensions of staff with those granted to the judiciary. “We’re only asking for some parity,” graft investigator Mendoza said. – 

Construction site image via Shutterstock 

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