No sanctions for Bongbong Marcos?

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
No sanctions for Bongbong Marcos?
The Senate ethics committee cannot unilaterally probe into false claims about degrees from Oxford and Wharton

AT A GLANCE: 

  • The Ombudsman dismissed a foreign affairs official for making false claims about her educational background.
  • Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. does not face any sanction for a similar fault.
  • The Ombudsman does not have administrative jurisdiction over the Senate; it is the Senate itself.
  • Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto volunteers to chair Senate ethics committee.

MANILA, Philippines – Officials from the executive department who lie about their educational record face the grave sanction of dismissal. But elected officials do not – and can continue to hold public office and run for re-election.

We look at two cases that illustrate this clearly.

In 2013, the Office of the Ombudsman axed a ranking foreign affairs officer for making false claims in her personal data sheet (PDS). The Department of Foreign Affairs senior staff was faulted for “dishonesty, falsification of official document, misconduct and conduct prejudicial to the interest of the service.” Her retirement benefits were forfeited and she was perpetually disqualified from holding public office.

Ma. Lourdes Ramiro-Lopez, then consul-general, declared that she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Communication from the University of the Philippines. Citing her student records, the UP College of Mass Communications said she did not complete her course.

Recently, Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr was discovered to have made false entries in his resumé, both in his undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Oxford University, where he claimed to have obtained a Bachelor of Arts in “Political Science, Philosophy and Economics” (the correct name of the course is Philosophy, Politics, and Economics), confirmed that Marcos Jr did not complete his BA and got only a “special diploma in social studies.”

Wharton School likewise confirmed to us in an e-mail that Marcos Jr did not obtain an MBA degree:

The University of Pennsylvania Registrar (who oversees transcripts/records for all Penn students including Wharton students) confirmed that Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. did not obtain an MBA degree from the Wharton School.

Marcos Jr admitted this much but insists that he received a degree from Oxford University. He has not made any changes in his resumé.

Senate ethics committee

We inquired with the Office of the Ombudsman about the case of Marcos Jr. Arthur Carandang, overall deputy ombudsman, said they do not have “administrative jurisdiction” over the Senate. Rather, it is the Senate itself which can look into the issue.

The proper body, it turns out, is the ethics committee which, the Senate rules say, deals with “all matters relating to the conduct, rights, privileges, safety, dignity, integrity and reputation of the Senate and its members.”

But two things need to happen first: someone has to chair the ethics committee and a complaint has to be filed. For the past two years, the ethics committee has been leaderless. The last chair of the ethics committee was Senator Alan Peter Cayetano (2010-2013).

“Nobody wants to take it,” Senate President Franklin Drilon told us in a telephone interview, “ to sit in judgment of one’s peers.”

He also explained that the ethics committee cannot unilaterally take up a case because the proceedings are “adversarial” wherein “someone has to prove a case and a respondent defends himself or herself.” The Senate then metes out sanctions from censure to suspension to expulsion.

Former Senator Rene Saguisag, who once chaired the ethics committee, said that Marcos Jr’s case falls within the committee’s purview. “If he (Bongbong) asserts today falsehoods about those degrees, the committee should look into it. The rule of thumb is that the misrepresentation must have been done or continued while sitting as senator,” Saguisag wrote us in an e-mail.

Any citizen can complain but “it would be the call of the Chair [of the ethics committee],” Saguisag added.

Sotto volunteers

In December 2013, Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto was quoted as volunteering to be the chair of the ethics committee. This was when Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago urged the Senate to convene the ethics committee to take up her complaint versus her colleague, Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, over what she considered “disorderly behavior.”  

Both senators were at each other’s throats, hurling accusations against each other. Santiago pointed to Enrile as “mastermind” of the multi-billion pork barrel scam. Breaking his silence, Enrile called Santiago names, including the “grandmama of all falsehood fabricators.”

Amid this vitriolic exchange, Sotto told reporters he was willing to lead the ethics committee. But nothing came of this.

Sotto himself was the subject of complaints for plagiarism, when he supposedly lifted parts of his speeches attacking the reproductive health bill. These, however, were not taken up.

We asked Sotto if he was still open to heading the ethics committee. “Yes, I’m still open if the Senate leadership will agree to organize and convene the committee,” he replied in a text message.

Censure only

The Senate ethics committee has a lackluster history. In recent time, no senator has been suspended or expelled on ethical grounds.

A few have been censured, which is simply a reprimand, including then Senator Heherson Alvarez “after he vouched for the innocence” of a police official while an investigation by the Philippine National Police on a pyramid scam was still ongoing.

Our research in the Senate archives shows that the 11th, 12th, and 13th Congress (1998-2007) had zero hearings by the ethics committee. Nevertheless, it took up a total of 4 ethics complaints – one in the 11th Congress and 3 in the 12th Congress – but all were dismissed. The 14th Congress (2007-2010) had 10 hearings on complaints on the violation of rules of executive sessions and early campaigning, among others, but only about two were resolved.

In the 15th Congress (2010-2013), the committee met 4 times, but only to discuss proposed rules. – with a report by Michael Bueza/Rappler.com

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.