The search for the next Ombudsman

Lian Buan
'When all else fails, God forbid, please keep the institution to its minimum standard, nothing below,' Conchita Carpio Morales tells her successor

Conchita Carpio Morales, the 5th Philippine Ombudsman in history, will retire on July 26, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Ombudsman

MANILA, Philippines – The job of being an Ombudsman is so difficult that Conchita Carpio Morales is the first one in 16 years to finish a full term.

Simeon Marcelo was hit by “burnout” and quit only 3 years into the job, while Merceditas Gutierrez resigned due to mounting pressure of corruption allegations and an impeachment trial that was on its way.

Consider Morales’ message to her successor a fair warning: “Work begins at sunrise and ends at sundown. Even if you work on Saturdays, you will not be able to finish your work.” (READ: Morales asks for forgiveness in last Christmas with Ombudsman staff)

She is speaking from experience. Morales is known to clock in the earliest every day, sometimes even ahead of her deputies and staff. She goes to the office on Saturdays, and yet, as she said, the job is far from done.

“I followed the rule of law in my work. I will always treasure that I have always been a stickler for the rule of law”

Pork barrel scam

Morales will retire on July 26. The next Ombudsman will inherit the biggest corruption case in contemporary Philippine history – the pork barrel scam.

Not only will the next Ombudsman have the task of ensuring convictions in the highest profile pork scam cases already pending at the Sandiganbayan, he or she will have to take on the task of prosecuting the remaining hundred or so.

The Commission on Audit (COA) had identified 240 lawmakers who misused their discretionary funds, but Morales barely got to charge half. 

Pork barrel scam cases against 17 Liberal Party lawmakers are still in the mill, and two of the senators charged with plunder are enjoying temporary freedom.

Janet Lim Napoles, the alleged mastermind, has had some things go in her favor. She had been acquitted of serious illegal detention, given state protection, and able to use related rulings to boost her legal defense.

Napoles’ lawyer Stephen David has connections to Malacañang, and he doesn’t keep it a secret that he is looking at brokering deals like a plea bargain agreement to help her client. These potential Napoles deals will be initiated at the Office of the Ombudsman as the body which has jurisdiction over it. Thus, there is a lot of attention on them as they navigate a new political landscape in this historic case.

Morales and Aquino

Of course, Morales will not leave without anyone raising a howl about what they think she had done wrong. In fact, the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) had made earnest efforts to try and impeach her at the House of Representatives.

And it’s always about one thing, or one person: former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III.

Morales charged Aquino with graft in the Mamasapano bloodbath, but those charges have been slammed for being weak “and designed to fail.” Solicitor General Jose Calida had asked the Supreme Court to nullify the graft charges, and instead indict Aquino for reckless imprudence resulting in homicide.

In the complaint over the Disbursement Acceleration Program or DAP, Morales cleared Aquino in March 2017. That same month, complainant Bayan Muna appealed Morales’ decision and asked her to reinstate the charges against the former president.

One year and two months later, the Ombudsman who swears she does not protect anyone, not even the one who appointed her, has been silent.

“I followed the rule of law in my work. I will always treasure that I have always been a stickler for the rule of law,” Morales said at a recent forum where they also celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Office.

 

 

 

 

Applicants

“One has to be impervious to pressure. One has to have integrity. You may be the brightest fellow in the world, but if you don’t have integrity then forget it,” Morales said, when asked what she thinks are the qualifications for the next Ombudsman.

Ten names are on the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) list after making the application deadline – Special Prosecutor Edilberto Sandoval, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Martires, and Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Efren dela Cruz.

One name on that list has been buzzing in legal circles for months: Edna Batacan, a veteran defense lawyer for public officials, the lawyer who got then mayor Rodrigo Duterte cleared of graft, and an alumna of the powerhouse San Beda network.

Batacan is the only woman on the list, and she is one woman close to the President. Morales would have also wanted a woman successor, saying: “Let it be the same institution that considers women leaders as empowered, and who equals men. After all, your lady justice maybe purposely blindfolded but her balance is never tilted.”

On May 16, however, Duterte said the next Ombudsman will not be a woman.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque did not comment on a question whether Duterte was referring to Batacan – his former lawyer – when he made that remark.

“One has to be impervious to pressure. One has to have integrity. You may be the brightest fellow in the world, but if you don’t have integrity then forget it”

The Duterte investigation

Whoever Duterte appoints will have the difficult job of investigating the President’s son, resigned Davao City vice mayor Paolo Duterte, and the cops who allegedly carried out then mayor Duterte’s kill orders against criminals in Davao City.

Morales did not only balance the Aquino connection during her term, but her Duterte ties as well. She is related to the Dutertes by marriage; her first-degree nephew Manases Carpio is married to presidential daughter Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte.

As a result, she has inhibited in all Duterte-related investigations, and delegated them to her deputies.

One of them – Overall Deputy Ombudsman Melchor Arthur Carandang – is now undergoing internal investigation over the President’s accusation that he breached confidentiality in the course of the hidden wealth probe.

There was a supposed cash flow of almost a billion pesos in the Duterte bank accounts, said Carandang, but the entire story will remain unknown for now, because the investigation was terminated late last year.

The Office of the Ombudsman said in a statement the termination was due to the non-participation of the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC).

Although she inhibited, Morales reminded everyone, including her successor: “It was closed and terminated without prejudice to another investigation, if warranted.”

Understaffed

Morales said the Office “chews” threats and intimidation on a daily basis.

But perhaps an even bigger challenge is the reality on the ground; like many government offices, the Office of the Ombudsman is severely understaffed, with many wishing for a better retirement package.

Morales said the vacancies remain unfilled because she did not want to hire just anyone, and that she would rather have “10 lawyers who are competent than 100 lawyers who are insufficient and lazy.”

A “lacking retirement package” also sends senior prosecutors away to look for better options. Morales said the “exodus” of Ombudsman lawyers is a top concern, and that she is “fighting tooth and nail” for a better retirement package. (A measure is pending before the Lower House to augment Ombudsman employees’ retirement packages.)

The brain drain in the Office of the Ombudsman is closely connected to the pressing issue of investigation delays. These delays, known in court as the “inordinate delay” doctrine, have put to waste a lot of efforts.

The Sandiganbayan has dismissed a lot of Ombudsman cases because of these delays, even the high-profile fertilizer fund scam.

The last to hit them is the dismissal of the last remaining plunder case in the P365-million PCSO intelligence fund scam. What was the highlight of Morales’ early years as Ombudsman came to an almost embarrassing end, as the major personality in the case – former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo – slowly makes her return to power.

Morales acknowledges these failures. “The Office of the Ombudsman is not perfect. We rise and fall in the area of prevention. The legal and judicial structure that we currently operate in has provided this office the biggest setbacks in its anti-corruption campaign.”

So in this search for the next Ombudsman, the Filipino people is looking for a star. 

But Morales pleads: “When all else fails, God forbid, please keep the institution to its minimum standard, nothing below.” – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.