[OPINION] A new approach to the SALN

Tony La Viña

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[OPINION] A new approach to the SALN
'We can all agree that any public disclosure of the SALN should not be done as a result of some ill intent. It is not to be utilized to destroy a political opponent, besmirch a reputation, or exact vengeance against any individual for some perceived wrong.'

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.

Several, if not most government agencies, like the Civil Service Commission or the Bureau of Internal Revenue, have in place regulatory policies regarding access to the SALNs of their respective employees. Of note however is Memorandum Circular No. 1, Series of 2020 recently signed by Ombudsman Samuel Martires, citing guiding provisions of the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of Republic Act (RA) 6713, the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

In the old Ombudsman guidelines, people requesting SALNs from the Ombudsman just need to properly fill out the prescribed form and submit identification documents to the authorized staff. However, under the new guidelines, the Ombudsman has made a list of authorized persons, such as the Ombudsman’s field investigators, government officials, and their duly authorized representatives, who can request for SALN copies. Persons who do not fall under any of the categories in the list will have to submit a notarized letter of authority from the official whose SALN is being requested. 

Under this memorandum dated September 1, SALNs would now be released only in 3 situations: first, if the declarant, meaning the government official who filed it, and his or her official representative made a request; second, if it is legally ordered by the court in relation to a pending case; and third, if the request is made through the Office of the Ombudsman’s field investigation office for the purpose of a fact-finding probe. 

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Martires defends restriction: SALNs are weaponized

Martires defends restriction: SALNs are weaponized
The need to review SALN law and guidelines

Notice that the new Ombudsman guidelines on access of the SALN is more restrictive compared to the old guidelines, as the former limits the individuals who can request copies of a government official’s SALN to the declarant and for officers conducting investigations. According to Ombudsman Martires, the SALN has been weaponized, as it is being used as a means to damage the reputation of a person, or besmirch a rival in politics. 

The Ombudsman also pointed out the need to amend R.A. 6713 or the SALN law because, according to him, there are really provisions there which “are not just vague but also seems like illogical.” In particular, he sees the need to restudy the form of the SALN, like the depreciation or appreciation of assets to be declared, among others. 

I share the same observations as that of the Ombudsman, at least insofar as his belief that the SALN law should be reviewed by Congress, since it is being used more and more as a tool in ways other than what it was originally intended. We have seen in the past and even up to the present how the SALN has become a favorite, if not a most convenient, weapon to be used against political rivals or to sully the good name of government officials. The Ombudsman, by issuing Memorandum Circular No. 1, Series of 2020, clearly recognizes the need to put a stop to this practice. 

Purposes of the SALN

The SALN has two roles. Its constitutional status is based on the principles of transparency and accountability. That role, in particular the access of media to SALNs, must be respected. It’s other role is forensic – and that is subject to criminal  as well as administrative procedure. The SALN is not and cannot by itself be a measure of integrity.

The SALN can be proffered as evidence but never be considered as the end-all and be-all in any court action. A contrary view will create an open season where government officials can fall prey to ambitious, vindictive, and malicious persons bent on taking down a perceived opponent or rival by filing court cases, never mind if it’s frivolous or unfounded. 

While I appreciate Ombudsman Martires’ actions, I think we should also not go to the extreme and completely set aside the SALN, given its constitutional status as well as its potential as a forensic tool. I also think that a blanket doing-away of lifestyle checks is a unilateral disarmament of the government in the face of a culture of graft and corruption that prevails.

For now, I support the measures that the Ombudsman has taken. But I look forward to proposals that would strengthen both the SALN and lifestyle checks, making sure they cannot be weaponized for political and similar ends but retaining its value as an assurance of transparency and a limited forensic tool for criminal prosecution and administrative cases.

How to make the SALN better

We can all agree that any public disclosure of the SALN should not be done as a result of some ill intent. It is not to be utilized to destroy a political opponent, besmirch a reputation, or exact vengeance against any individual for some perceived wrong. Any request must only be granted if done on legal and/or moral grounds or in accordance with sound public policy – not, say, when a request is undertaken to fish for evidence on the pretext of some yet-to-be-determined and/or imagined offense. In this connection, it is of utmost importance that a court case is pending before a request of this kind is to be granted.   

Media organizations, following proper procedures and subject to reasonable conditions, must always be given full access to the SALN of government officials. Media organizations exist primarily to inform, analyze, educate, or even expose anomalies/corruption which the general public has the right to know. Having followed their SALN reports and analyses through decades, I can definitely say that the work of the PCIJ on SALNs has always been excellent, rigorous, and non-partisan. The PCIJ has always conformed to the highest standards of journalistic ethics and it must be allowed to continue its great work.

In 2003 (Chavez v. PEA; Chavez v. NHA, et al., G.R. No. 164527), the Supreme Court proclaimed: “Unless citizens have the proper information, they cannot hold public officials accountable for anything. Armed with the right information, citizens can participate in public discussions leading to the formulation of government policies and their effective implementation. An informed citizenry is essential to the existence and proper functioning of any democracy.” This was true then, more so now. –

Tony La Viña teaches law and is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government.

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