Pandemic limits Philippines' anti-corruption work

At a crucial time, the coronavirus pandemic is limiting the Philippines' anti-corruption work in procurement when the government is exempt from public bidding. 

The Office of the Ombudsman physically closed its offices nationwide since the lockdown in March, and suspended the period of filing pleadings, motions and affidavits, and other relevant documents.

As Manila eased into general community quarantine, Ombudsman Samuel Martires said the agency is still not fully operational, and most personnel are still working from home.

"Hindi puwedeng sabihing fully operational, nagwo-work from home pa rin karamihan, ang ano namin talaga, ang aming front line ay 'yung clearance at saka records," Martires told Rappler in a phone call on Saturday, June 6.

(You can't say it's fully operational, most are still working from home, and our front lines really are the clearance and records divisions.) 

Martires said they continued to receive complaints, and have, so far, gotten 11 complaints related to the quarantine, but these mostly involved anomalies related to the distribution of the special emergency fund.

The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) is taking the lead in building up criminal and administrative cases against local officials accused of mishandling the financial aid packages.

Martires said the office has still not started a fact-finding investigation into these complaints.

"Hindi pa namin binubusisi paisa-isa. Hindi pa (nagfa-fact finding), hinihintay pa namin 'yung data galing DILG, hinihintay din namin complaints," said Martires.

(We have not scrutinized each one yet. We haven't done fact-finding, we're still waiting for data from the DILG, still waiting for the complaints.)

Procurement in pandemic

Martires said he was not sure whether there was any complaint related to pandemic procurement among the ones they have received because they are still encoding them.

There were 86 other complaints initially determined not to be related to the quarantine.

This is important because under the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act, the government is exempt from public bidding, and agencies can resort to a negotiated procurement for emergency transactions brought about by the pandemic.

Negotiated procurements are open to abuse, and can be a source of corruption, according to experts whom Rappler earlier talked to, because it gives the procuring agency some leeway to choose its suppliers. 

Senators have raised the alarm over allegedly overpriced personal protective equipment (PPE) and other testing equipment.

"Ang mahirap ngayon sa totoo lang, yung field investigation. Tigil lahat mula nung mag-lockdown ang field investigation," said Martires, citing limitation of transport and the risk of infection in going out to interview in the field.

(The truth is it's difficult to do field investigations now. We stopped all field investigations since the lockdown.)

Martires said field investigators are mostly coordinating with agencies to get relevant documents.

"Anyway, when everything settles, Commission on Audit (COA) can order a special audit on how these funds were utilized and how they had impacted on the life of Filipinos. Performance audit is the best way to determine this," former COA commissioner Jose Fabia told Rappler in an earlier interview.

Martires said they were also coordinating with COA.

READ | Corruption red flags special report

No hearings

There have also been no hearings at the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan since the start of the lockdown, pursuant to the Supreme Court directive at the start of the strict quarantine.

But when the quarantine was eased, the Supreme Court also fully resumed court work although on skeleton staff. The Office of the Ombudsman, however, requested for a cancellation of hearings until the end of June.

"There are no hearings for the whole month of June. We granted the Office of the Special Prosecutor's (OSP) motion to cancel hearings for the said month because it is not ready to go to trial resulting from this pandemic," Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang said in a text message.

Tang said the anti-graft court "resumed normal operations last June 1 except for the hearings." She added that there were no virtual hearings, too.

Martires has strictly enforced safety measures on their personnel, even requesting them to seek permission should they need to go to the office. The Ombudsman admits digital solutions have their challenges too. (READ: Are PH courts truly ready for digital transformation post-lockdown?)

"Kapag mag-mi-meeting kami, magvi-video conference kami, ang hirap ng work from home, ang hina ng internet, either Viber or Facetime, kaya lang biglang napuputol," said Martires.

(If we're meeting we do video conference, work from home is really difficult, the internet is slow, we either Viber or Facetime but sometimes we get disconnected.)

Asked for her opinion, former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales said that because "most, if not all, senior and junior officials of the Ombudsman are techie...I would have probably directed concerned officials to work at home."

The number of cases that the Office of the Ombudsman filed under Martires has also been dropping – only filed 198 cases in 2019, a 73% decline from the 739 cases filed in 2018, a year which he shared with Morales who retired July that year.

In January 2020, the Ombudsman filed only 8 cases. The Sandiganbayan has no data yet beyond January 2020.

SALN

The deadline for the yearly filing of Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) is usually April 30, but the Civil Service Commission (CSC) has extended the filing of the officials' 2019 SALNs to June 30 because of the pandemic. 

To date, Martires still has not released the 2018 SALNs of officials under his jurisdiction like President Rodrigo Duterte.

There is a standstill because Malacañang is passing the buck to Martires for the release of the SALNs, but the Ombudsman has said he was studying his authority to release them.

"Ilalabas ko na 'yung guidelines ng SALN within the month (I will release the guidelines on SALNs within the month)," said Martires.

All public officials and employees – whether regular or under temporary status – are required to file a SALN. Art. XI Sec. 17 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution says: “A public officer or employee shall, upon assumption of office and as often thereafter as may be required by law, submit a declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities, and net worth."

In addition, it says: “In the case of the President, the Vice-President, the Members of the Cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Commissions and other constitutional offices, and officers of the armed forces with general or flag rank, the declaration shall be disclosed to the public in the manner provided by law.”

It's the first time in 20 years that a Philippine president has not released his SALN. Since 1989, all presidents have either disclosed their SALN on their own or through the Office of the Ombudsman, according to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ). 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.

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