"I agree with Ombudsman Martires."
What prompted Ombudsman Samuel Martires to issue that memorandum limiting the access of any individual to a public official’s Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth?
Simple. He just wants to make sure that such access by any citizen will be proper and responsible.
Under the said circular, an individual can only have access if one of the following requirements apply: a) he/she is the declarant or the duly authorized representative of the declarant; b) the request is upon lawful order of the court in relation to a pending case and c) the request is made by the Ombudsman’s Field Investigation Office/Bureau/Unit for the purpose of conducting a fact-finding investigation.
So, what’s wrong with these conditions? Is the Ombudsman unduly restricting access to what is usually construed as a public record? Is he violating RA 6713 otherwise known as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Practices of Public Officials by providing conditions for such an access? Is he protecting some government officials including the President?
The answer is No. Only ill-informed or ill-motivated individuals or out-and-out administration critics would find fault with these conditions. After all, if one wants access, he/she can simply follow the guidelines and pronto the requested SALN can be provided.
Now, will the Ombudsman’s circular prevent anybody from even getting a handle on a public official’s SALN? Not at all. As Martires himself explained, the Ombudsman is not the only repository of an official’s SALN. That official’s agency has a copy of his/her SALN. The Ombudsman’s is just some kind of a back up. In fact, keeping those back up records is actually just a tiny part of that office’s functions but over the years it has taken a lot of its time and resources.
Imagine, the agency has had to handle 150,000 requests for SALNs on an annual basis. Worse, many of those trying to access these documents have become collectors, trying to get as many such records of officials as they feel like having. Reports have it that one individual asked the SALN of 100 different officials for reasons unknown. It turned out these SALNs were used to blackmail and extort officials. And, as expected, used by political opponents to throw mud at each other.
In a word, as the Ombudsman decried, it has been weaponized. Some experts have noticed that the SALN, together with indeterminable lifestyle checks, have been used as some sort of a shortcut in corruption probes which based on the record have been less than useful in arriving at convictions anyway.
As Martires explained, SALNs are not required for a corruption probe under the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act or Republic Act 3019. Citing various cases being handled by his office, Martires said that there are better and more responsive means which can be used to probe corruption, inefficiency, negligence and improper conduct in government as has been proven in the past.
In his appearance before the House of representatives, the Ombudsman advised: “Kasi katulad ng charge ng undue injury dahil mali ang bidding. Hindi ho namin kailangan ng SALN. Giving undue advantage. Hindi ho namin kailangan ng SALN. Plunder, hindi rin ho namin kailangan ng SALN. Ang kailangan namin, ebidensya na that this guy accumulated or amassed wealth by accepting an amount of around P50 million, (Undue injury due to bidding defects, we don’t need a SALN. Giving undue advantage, we also do not need SALN. Also in the case of plunder, no need for a SALN. What we need is solid, responsive evidence that this guy accumulated or amassed ill gotten wealth which a SALN cannot provide).
Simply put, SALN and lifestyle checks are just some of the instruments which the Ombudsman can use to properly undertake its constitutional mandate to,“investigate on its own, or on complaint by any person, any act or omission of any public official, employee, office or agency, when such act or omission appears to be illegal, unjust, improper, or inefficient.”
There are, as should be, better ways to realize this mandate to the full than keeping SALN records and giving access to these to those who are bent on misusing these for their own selfish ends.