#TheLeaderIWant: Leadership lessons from Conchita Carpio Morales

Maria A. Ressa

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#TheLeaderIWant: Leadership lessons from Conchita Carpio Morales
'I just appeal to people with integrity to vote for honest people, not to sell their votes'

REASON FOR LIFE. Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales says fighting corruption has been the 'reason' for her life. Rappler photo

“I hate corruption,” she said emphatically. “I’ll never, ever allow corruption to rule.”

74-year-old Conchita Carpio Morales spoke forcefully. We were in the new office of the Ombudsman of the Philippines, a position created after the 1986 people power revolt. 

In a country with weak institutions and endemic corruption, ruled by social networks and a mentality of ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours,’ there is no tougher job than running an office charged with investigating and prosecuting officials accused of graft and corruption.

“There’s a lot of corruption in government: that’s the challenge we are facing,” she said, “People are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel – that the impossible is, after all, possible, and that crooks in government could really get punished.”

It’s a message I’ve heard her give in several public forums, including our most recent anti-corruption panel during APEC meetings in Manila in November 2015.

On February 2, 2016, the week the Ombudsman’s office released 2 key decisions affecting top officials, Morales spent about an hour and a half with Rappler to assess her performance and share her insights.

Here are some of her lessons in leadership:

1.  Create an environment that makes the impossible possible

It was the first time I visited the months old new headquarters, spartan in design. Huge imposing columns at the entrance reminded me of the Supreme Court, a stateliness that made justice seem solid and palpable. 

The downstairs lobby was an expansive white, and the elevator took you up to tall, heavy wooden doors that opened into her staff offices. The floor is shiny and white, reflecting a purity of purpose that at this point still seems more aspirational than reality.

Aides said the Ombudsman leaves her home at 5am to beat the traffic and is behind her desk working between 6-630am. She works Saturdays, too, and expects everyone in the building to match her work ethic. 

Her office has a folding door to a little enclave she called her “workspace.” It had a long table full of voluminous case files stacked one on top of each other perpendicular to a desk that had a clear space. Next to the desk was a wheeled pushcart that took away the case files as she finished them. 

Behind the desk and to its right were towering metal shelves also full of case files stacked on top of each other. Some were standing upright, others were horizontally stacked. Sticking out from each are white sheets in the center, presumably identifying them. I looked at the cases on the long table to see small yellow post-it notes interspersed with pink ones among the pages of each file.

This is where Morales does her work. 

https://www.instagram.com/p/BBSIBHFC1sK/” style=” color:#000; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; font-style:normal; font-weight:normal; line-height:17px; text-decoration:none; word-wrap:break-word;” target=”_blank”>The pending cases of PH Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales. This is her workspace.

A photo posted by Maria Ressa (@maria_ressa) on

According to its own data, the Office of the Ombudsman has a workload of 11,056 cases, including 8,715 pending cases from earlier years and 2, 341 cases filed in the first half of 2015. 

Of the total number of cases, 2,940 cases or 27% have been resolved: dismissed, forwarded to the courts or given penalties.

Morales said she is hoping to hit zero backlog shortly before her term ends in 2018.

2.  Insulate from vested interests

I asked her what types of public and private pressure she gets from people with vested interests.

“No pressure on me,” she retorted. “The only pressure I have is the pressure of work.”

It seemed a glib dismissal of social and peer pressure, but perhaps this is a natural progression of her career, fulfilling the aim of the drafters of the 1987 Constitution which created the Office of the Ombudsman.

“They wanted an office that is isolated from the tentacles of power – the tentacles of politicians, the tentacles of fixers who reach out to courts, to prosecutors,” she said.

A former associate justice of the Supreme Court for nine years until she retired in 2011, Morales developed an impeccable reputation as a tough talking, no-nonsense, incorruptible magistrate. Appointed by former President Gloria Arroyo, she became the first woman to swear in a president after Benigno Aquino personally asked for her. She is the second woman to hold the post of Ombudsman.

Constitutional lawyers speak admiringly of the professionalism of Morales. A former colleague at the Supreme Court spoke about how she avoided even a hint of potential conflicts of interest, choosing instead to lead a circumspect private life.

3. Take calculated risks in standing up to power

It hasn’t been an easy time, and she’s taken great risks, focusing her attention not just on the high-profile cases against the woman who appointed her as well as other top officials, but also within her own office where deputy and assistant ombudsmen now face criminal charges for extortion.

Her first challenge was the impeachment trial of Renato Corona, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court in 2012. Using a straightforward interpretation of a little known clause in the assets statements of public officials, she was able to get evidence of large undeclared dollar accounts by going directly to AMLC, the Anti-Money Laundering Council – an interpretation challenged during the impeachment trial by Senator Miriam Santiago. 

Unperturbed and unflappable, she stood up to her former classmate, who voted to acquit Corona. 

Two years later, she suspended an Aquino favorite, Philippine National Police chief Alan Purisima along with 11 other officers, helping set the stage for the worst crisis President Aquino  faced: the Mamasapano fiasco.

In mid-2015, she took head-on a battle with Vice President Jejomar Binay, and his son, former Makati Mayor Junjun Binay, which had her defending her position in front of her former colleagues at the Supreme Court.

She would win in a few months, suspending then dismissing and perpetually disqualifying Junjun Binay from ever running for office.

To see the lines she draws between her professional and personal lives, during that time, her son died but Morales said nothing publicly. The only way the public found out was because a photo was released by Malacañang when President Aquino attended her son’s wake.

 President Benigno S. Aquino III offers prayers before the remains of the late Umberto Morales, son of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales at the Heritage Park in Taguig City on Monday (October 12). Photo by Benjie Basug/Malacañang Photo Bureau

On Friday, February 5, 2016, she threw out Junjun Binay’s appeal on his dismissal order and upheld criminal charges against him and his father, who has immunity until after he steps down from office. (Because he’s campaigning for president, criminal charges can’t be filed if he wins on May 9)

The Binays have been relentless in their attacks, saying the cases are politically motivated and that Morales is under “the remote control” of the Liberal Party. She shot back, “impeach me.”

“I think I have the reputation that I cannot be influenced into doing this,” she told me.  “When I accepted this post, President Aquino told me, ‘I want you to be independent.’ To his credit, the President has never – directly or indirectly – interfered or suggested how I resolve cases. We always go by the evidence.”

She looked around the room full of files again, saying the biggest pressure came from the work itself. 

4.  Be patient and take the long view

Morales was brutal in her assessment of our culture of corruption.

“I don’t know if it’s changing,” she said. “I don’t seem to see any change in the pattern of our culture because the culture is still there. Perhaps maybe 50 years from now, and we’ll all be 6 feet below the ground. Perhaps in the next generation.”

We discussed the Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF, systematized corruption that funnelled government funds into fake non-governmental organizations with large kickbacks for the legislators.  

The exposés in 2013 ripped open Pandora’s box, showing a decades-long practice that was quickly declared unconstitutional and resulted in cases against three incumbent senators, five former representatives, and Janet Napoles. 

“How did that go undetected as long as it did?” I asked.

“Well, officials scratch each other’s backs,” she said forcefully.  “See? Because that was already a series of acts of congressmen and senators, and it was all manipulated by a certain group. And perhaps some naive congressmen and senators were caught in the trap.  That’s why they were all victims, but they were also conspirators. I’m sure they were aware of what they were entering into.”

“But as long as it was hidden it was okay because everyone was doing it,” I said.

“Yes, yes!” she retorted. “They thought they could get away with it.”

While there have been successes, there have also been setbacks. Like the game of whack-a-mole, fighting corruption is “frustrating” – a word she used at least six times in our interview. 

“Now that PDAF is unconstitutional, can the Filipino people get the money back?” I asked.

“We are supposed to have this petition for forfeiture, but the trouble with that is with all the publicity attendant to the investigations, by the time you are allowed to file the petition for forfeiture, the coffers are empty,” Morales replied. “Billions are gone because they have been withdrawn by the respondents. So it’s frustrating.”

Even attempts to measure progress fall short. Transparency International does an annual ranking of countries based on a corruption index. From 2010 to 2014, the Philippines jumped up 49 notches, but in the just released rankings for 2015, the country dropped 10 notches.

“Some people blame us, but you see, the Office of the Ombudsman investigates and prosecutes only,” said Morales. “They should not blame me. We only present evidence. It’s the courts which determine whether or not the accused is guilty or acquitted.”

5.  Find hope in tomorrow

When I asked her to describe her lowest point, she answered quickly.

“Lowest point? When Enrile was – I have to be very frank – when Enrile was released by the Supreme Court on a ground that he didn’t even invoke” – referring to how Senator Juan Ponce Enrile was released on bail on plunder charges, a non-bailable offense. Within two weeks, the Ombudsman filed a motion for reconsideration that is still pending.

“I was frustrated,” she added. “If I recall correctly, his being ill or sick was never raised as a ground for petition for bail at the lower court.  When I say the lower court, I refer to the Sandiganbayan. It was only, I think, when he wanted to be detained at the hospital that he raised his being ill or sick to justify detention at the hospital.”

“Doesn’t it set a dangerous precedent?” I asked. “Were you surprised?” 

“I was surprised, but whether it can be presented as a dangerous precedent – I’m not going to comment on that without risk of being cited in contempt by the Supreme Court.”

“Every leader has a low moment, right?” I followed up. “How do you keep moving forward?” 

“Well, I know there is a tomorrow,” she replied. “That things could change because nothing is permanent. So that gives me the impetus to move forward – to move on.”

Culture change, shifting accepted norms and values in a meaningful way, is a person-by-person battle. 

The May 9 elections for more than 80,000 officials can either be a sprint forward or a slide downward eroding hard-won successes in the battle against corruption. 

“I just appeal to people with integrity to vote for honest people, not to sell their votes,” Morales said. “If the leaders are corrupt, what will prevent the underlings from committing corruption? But if the leader is not corrupt, the subordinate officials will have fear, or have difficulty committing corruption.” – Rappler.com

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Maria Ressa


Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for more than 37 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia, From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism, and How to Stand up to a Dictator.