Samuel Martires

Ombudsman Samuel Martires in the spotlight

Katerina Francisco, Jezreel Ines

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Ombudsman Samuel Martires in the spotlight
(2nd UPDATE) Samuel Martires as Ombudsman and graft buster is supposed to be the champion of transparency

Editor’s Note: This is an updated story on former Supreme Court associate justice Samuel Martires first published on March 6, 2017, when he was appointed Ombudsman. We are republishing the story with new and updated information.

MANILA, Philippines – The secretive Ombudsman Samuel Martires is grabbing headlines once again for his latest remarks opposing public releases of annual audit reports made by the Commission on Audit (COA). 

This stems not from the need to protect erring and corrupt government officials and employees, he clarified, but from the need to ensure that it is the final audit report that is publicized. 

Martires is no stranger to being under fire. He has been called out by anti-corruption advocates for the problematic positions he has taken on transparency – particularly the releases of public documents pertaining to the wealth of public officials. 

But what else do we know about him? 

Martires as Ombudsman

Martires, who hails from Samar, was appointed Ombudsman by then-president Rodrigo Duterte in July 2018. He replaced Conchita Carpio Morales. 

As Ombudsman, Martires has been criticized for his controversial statements, particularly his policies pertaining to the release of officials’ Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs).

Due to the Ombudsman’s failure to establish clear and transparent guidelines for the public disclosure of SALNs, the SALN of former president Duterte from 2018 onwards has remained shrouded in secrecy since 2019. It marked the first time in 30 years that a president has refused to publicize his SALN. 

In 2021, Martires also sought “stringent penalties” – including a prison sentence of five years – for anyone who makes “commentaries” on the SALNs of government officials and employees. This is not the first time he imposed restrictions on journalists’ access to the SALNs of government officials.

In 2023, Martires expressed his reluctance to disclose publicly the audit observation memoranda (AOM) that the Commission on Audit annually sends to different government agencies.

“I want to suggest to Congress, if we can remove from the special provisions or general provisions of the GAA [General Appropriations Act] lines referring to the publishing of AOM,” Martires recently told the House of Representatives’ appropriations committee. This sparked concern among good governance advocates due to diminished government transparency.

In 2018, Martires’ wealth increased by P15 million, according to a mere summary of his 2018 SALN that was released, which differed from customary procedure of the Office of the Ombudsman.

Recent orders

Under Martires’ leadership, the Ombudsman has issued numerous orders to different government agencies involved in scandals and issues.

In May 2023, he ordered the preventive suspension of Cesar Chiong, the head of the Manila International Airport Authority, following complaints filed against him by “anonymous MIAA officials.” The Ombudsman noted that Chiong had repositioned about 285 MIAA employees in under a year, a process that he initiated just a month after assuming his post on July 20, 2022.

Recently in August 2023, the Ombudsman also ordered the filing of numerous charges and suspensions against different government officials.

These actions targeted former Department of Health (DOH) officials linked to the Dengvaxia controversy, officials from the Department of Agriculture (DA) and Food Terminal Incorporated (FTI) in relation to an “anomalous” onion deal, individuals implicated in the Pharmally scandal, and officials from the Department of Education (DepEd) and the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) connected to the overpriced laptop issue. 

Stint at the High Court

Prior to joining the Office of the Ombudsman, Martires was an associate justice at the Supreme Court (SC). In fact, he was Duterte’s first SC appointee in 2017.

During his panel interviews at the Judicial and Bar Council, Martires was asked how he would decide on the SC case that acquitted Arroyo of plunder and set her free in July 2016.

He replied that he would have concurred with the decision because there was “no proof that the President amassed wealth.” (READ: Sandigan Justice Martires to JBC: Agree with GMA acquittal)

On the Marcos burial issue, Martires said he believes that the late dictator was not dishonorably discharged by the Filipino people by force of the People Power Revolution.

“When we talk of one dishonorably discharged from the service, especially in the military, we talk of a decision of the court martial that discharges dishonorably a member of AFP. This is not the case of Ferdinand Marcos,” he said.

He added that it was his belief that Marcos was “not actually ousted by the Filipino people but [he] opted to leave Malacañang and go to Hawaii just to…prevent any untoward incident that may happen in EDSA.”

Arroyo appointee at anti-graft court

Before his appointment to the High Court, Martires had served in the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan starting 2005. He also previously worked as presiding judge of the Agoo Regional Trial Court Branch 32.

Martires penned the April 2013 Sandiganbayan resolution that upheld the plea bargain agreement struck by former military comptroller Major General Carlos Garcia and the Ombudsman.

This allowed Garcia to plead guilty to lesser bailable offenses of indirect bribery and facilitating money laundering, instead of plunder. Under this deal, Garcia was to return P135 million worth of properties, stocks and bank deposits – less than half of the P303 million that he allegedly acquired illegally.

The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) then slammed the anti-graft court’s resolution, saying the Sandiganbayan issued a “corrupt order” to favor Garcia. 

Several years later, Martires asserted that he maintained his independence even as he drew criticism over the decision.

In his interview for the SC post in November 2016, Martires told the JBC: “I insisted on what is right, and I didn’t care what Malacañang would do to us. I even heard I was the subject of a background investigation whether I earned from that case or not. But I maintained what I thought was right, I insisted that the Office of the Solicitor General cannot intervene or appear before the Sandiganbayan.” 

The SC eventually stopped the plea bargain deal and the bail that Garcia was allowed to post. The Sandiganbayan also recalled its 2010 resolution that allowed the former comptroller to post  bail. 

The alleged Binondo Central Bank scam

In 2012, Martires penned the anti-graft court’s verdict clearing the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, the late Armed Forces chief Fabian Ver, and businessman Roberto Ongpin, over the alleged Binondo Central Bank scam

The P50-billion damage suit stemmed from a 24-year-old case filed by the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG). The PCGG claimed that under the protection of the Marcos government, the Binondo Central Bank – composed of black market dollar traders rounded up by Ongpin and Ver – engaged in buying US dollars and stashing them abroad.

But the Sandiganbayan verdict said that there was “no evidence to prove that these defendants received money by way of kickbacks, commission, gifts, or percentages from capitalists of the Binondo Central Bank.”

Both the PCGG and the OSG slammed Martires’ ruling, saying his decision was “not an honest and good faith attempt to resolve the instant case in a principled way.”

Martires took exception to the allegation

“I demand an explanation. This is a malicious accusation and an insult to the ponente. The only wealth I have is my reputation. It pains me so much that this accusation has been hurled to the court. This is contemptuous language,” Martires said. 

Dismissing case vs Mayor Duterte

In 2011, Martires also wrote the decision dismissing a case against then-Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte over the demolition of a park installed by his political rival in 2008.

Duterte and five other Davao officials had faced graft charges before the Ombudsman for demolishing a P2-million canal-cover project of former House speaker Prospero Nograles.

But in a Sandiganbayan resolution he penned, Martires found that there was no probable cause in the allegations. 

He said that the accused cannot be charged with evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence in demolishing the project.

“Aside from the fact that said structure was constructed without the necessary building permit, the accused city officials of Davao merely responded to the flooding problem experienced by their constituents in the affected areas when they demolished the concrete slabs covering the open drainage system,” he wrote.

“Their motive was to lessen, if not eliminate completely, the flooding in the area caused by the clogging of the drainage system and nothing more,” he added. 

Enrile and the pork barrel scam

Martires was also part of the Sandiganbayan 3rd Division that issued the warrant of arrest in 2014 against former senator Juan Ponce Enrile, his former aide Gigi Reyes, and other co-accused in the plunder charges filed against them over the pork barrel scam. 

The anti-graft court found probable cause to proceed with the trial against them.

But the court deferred judgment on the determination of probable cause and the issuance of arrest warrants for Napoles’ children, Jo Christine and James Christopher, along with 10 others.

In his separate opinion, Martires said the Office of the Special Prosecutor should present additional evidence.

“I dissent that warrants of arrest be issued against the persons,” his separate opinion read.

Enrile has since been allowed to post bail in August 2015 owing to poor health and old age, while Reyes was released in January 2023 after she claimed her right to speedy trial was violated.

Administrative complaints 

Martires had been the subject of at least four administrative complaints, three of which have been dismissed.

In 2002, Judge Caroline Pangan of the Municipal Trial Court in Rosario, La Union filed an administrative complaint before the SC against Martires and Judge Clifton Ganay of the Agoo RTC Branch 31. 

The complaint alleged gross ignorance of the law, incompetence, abuse of authority, and dereliction of duty against the two respondents, but this was dismissed for lack of merit. 

Four years later, another administrative complaint was filed by a certain Norie C. Rivera of Agoo, La Union, which was also dismissed for lack of merit. A complaint filed in 2011 by Antonio Baltazar against Martires and two other Sandiganbayan justices was also dismissed upon the recommendation of the Court Administrator. 

In January 2013, the SC admonished and sternly warned Martires and two other Sandiganbayan justices for failing to immediately implement the arrest of former Bacarra, Ilocos Norte mayor Pacifico Velasco. 

This stemmed from a 2012 complaint filed by Leonardo Velasco against the three justices, accusing them of showing partiality and impropriety in favor of the mayor, who had been convicted of graft.

Despite the mayor’s conviction, the arrest was not immediately implemented due to various pleadings that his camp filed, citing medical reasons.

In its decision, the SC admonished the 3 justices to be “more circumspect and prudent in observing the proper rules and procedures for the execution of judgments of conviction in the absence of restraining orders or injunctive writs from the Court.”

“They are sternly warned that repetition of the same or similar acts will be dealt with more severely,” it added

Qualifications

  • Bachelor of Laws degree from San Beda College
  • Took up Master of Laws from the University of Santo Tomas, with 27 units earned
  • Admitted to the Bar in 1976

Professional background

  • Supreme Court Associate Justice from March 6, 2017 to July 31, 2018
  • Associate Justice of the Sandiganbayan from October 15, 2005 to March 6, 2017
  • Presiding Judge of the Agoo, La Union Regional Trial Court Branch 32 from July 2000 to 2005
  • Private practice as a litigator for 13 years, from 1987 to 2000; handled mostly civil cases
  • Assistant Department Manager at the Ministry of Human Settlements from 1979 to 1984
  • Legal Officer 2 at the Department of Public Works, Transportation, and Communication from 1976 to 1979

– Rappler.com

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Jezreel Ines

Jezreel is a researcher-writer at Rappler mainly focused on governance and social issues.