[Newspoint] SALN, the first test of probity

Vergel O. Santos
[Newspoint] SALN, the first test of probity

Graphic by DR Castuciano

Martires himself has a different understanding of where the lines in a democracy are drawn between rights and freedoms on the one hand and privilege and power on the other. And the SALN is a scandalous case in point.

The ombudsman, Samuel Martires, has proposed that anyone who “makes a comment on [the] SALN of a particular government official or employee…be [made] liable for…imprisonment of not less than five years.” In fact, he has put his proposal in a draft bill, saving any lawmakers who might be interested the trouble of crafting it themselves.

Apparently, he was provoked by criticisms challenging his opinion that the SALN (Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth), which everyone in government is required to submit, is not open to the public. The criticisms came promptly, roundly, and expectedly. The SALN, after all, is intended to advance the people’s right to know, as a first-instance indicator of probity or a lack of it among public officeholders: Have they declared their material worth honestly and fully, concealing absolutely nothing? It only stands to reason that the SALN should be made readily, publicly accessible. Indeed, the SALN constitutes the first test of probity.

And why are the people given the right to see it when they want to? Because they have the ultimate say whom to put and keep in public office. Quarrel all you like with President Aquino’s submission to the people’s preeminence (“Kayo ang boss ko”), but that’s just how it is in a democracy.

Martires himself has a different understanding of where the lines in a democracy are drawn between rights and freedoms on the one hand and privilege and power on the other. And the SALN is a scandalous case in point. Martires seems to fetishize it, and comes across as rather imperious about it, which makes one curious to have a peek into his own SALN. But his SALN being not readily accessible, we’ll just have to try to do with things we know.

His imperiousness alone should tell us something. If he picked up the attitude at the Supreme Court, he was quite quick to develop it – he was there only briefly.

Fellow San Beda alumnus Rodrigo Duterte, who assumed the presidency in 2016, appointed him to the Supreme Court in 2017. It was packed at the time by appointees of Gloria Arroyo, who had managed that during her unusually long presidency. Stepping up from vice president, she served the three years left of Joseph Estrada’s term after he had been impeached and then deposed, by popular protests, for plunder; after that, she was elected to her own regular six-year term.

Martires had no reason to not feel at home in that Supreme Court. He had been himself appointed by Arroyo in the graft court (Sandiganbayan), where Duterte picked him for promotion to the Supreme Court, and, also, the two presidents were, and still are, the closest of allies.

Taking up his Supreme Court appointment at a late age, 68, Martires had to retire after less than two years, in 2018, but not before he could have his one shining moment: he voted with the majority in a coup that ousted their chief justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, whose independent-mindedness the authoritarian-leaning Duterte simply would not suffer.

But luck would seem to have a way of making it up to both Martires and Duterte. That same year the ombudsperson Conchita Carpio Morales, herself a former Supreme Court justice, retired, to Duterte’s relief – she is probably best remembered for saying this, in the middle of a controversy stirred up by demands that Duterte show his own SALN: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

Duterte named Martires to succeed Morales, and the rest is history. Or, rather, the SALN is history, if Martires gets his way.

He not only wants citizens in general and us journalists in particular, the constitutionally assigned agents for their right to know – Sila rin ang boss namin – kept off one’s SALN, unless one consents to having it revealed, and jailed if we insist; he also wants public officeholders given a wider discretion of what to reveal in their SALN. That should make it clear whose side he is on, and that side is the opposite of that which his very own title tells him to take, explicitly: Ombudsman, meaning “public advocate.”        

If Duterte is the biggest joke on democracy, Martires is not a distant rival for the distinction. –