The 1973 Constitution in force during the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos made several revolutionary contributions to the current legal system obtaining in the Philippines.
Before the 1973 Constitution was in effect, government officials accused of graft and corrupt practices were investigated by fiscals of the Department of Justice. Because corrupt fiscals were, through time, contemptuously called “fixcals,” the DoJ later changed their title to “prosecutor,” the title in use today. If the fiscal finds probable cause—a reasonable belief that the accused is probably guilty of the crime attributed to him—the fiscal files the corresponding criminal case against the accused before the Court of First Instance (now the Regional Trial Court). If the accused is convicted by the trial court, he had the right to appeal to the Court of Appeals and, ultimately, to petition the Supreme Court.
The 1973 Constitution changed that system. It had a separate article mandating the accountability of public officers. The charter also created an anti-graft court called the Sandiganbayan, and gave rise to an investigation officer called the Tanodbayan.
Under the new system, the Tanodbayan conducts the requisite investigation, and where proper, the Tanodbayan files the criminal case against the accused before the Sandiganbayan. A trial in the Sandiganbayan ensues where the accused is ultimately acquitted or convicted. If he is convicted, his only recourse is to the Supreme Court.
This process was reiterated in the 1987 Constitution, with some slight changes—the Tanodbayan became a special prosecutor, and the Tanodbayan’s basic functions under the old charter were vested in the Office of the Ombudsman the public reads about today.
Under the law, anybody can file any anti-graft case against any government official with the Ombudsman. Exempted from this rule are officials who, under the Constitution, are unseated only by impeachment. Anyway, as a result of this open-ended invitation for the general public to file complaints against government officials throughout the country, the dockets of the Ombudsman were soon clogged. Moreover, the relatively few investigators in the Ombudsman were unable to cope with the heavy volume of cases filed with the agency.
While many of the complaints filed in the Ombudsman are meritorious, there are just as many which are patently unmeritorious, or manifestly calculated solely to harass the respondent. This is seen in the number of complaints dismissed outright by the Ombudsman. Precisely because the public is encouraged to report graft in the government, the Ombudsman is unable to prevent the filing of unfounded complaints against innocent respondents.
For instance, in 2014, two officials of the University of the Philippines in Manila were accused of graft for, among others, their refusal to renew the contract of a security agency which failed to protect campus officials against a violent mob which tried to attack them. Fortunately, the complaint against them was dismissed by the Ombudsman.
Just recently, a discredited Bicol politician filed a complaint for graft against former House Speaker Arnulfo Fuentebella and his wife before the Ombudsman. Records reveal that the complaint is a mere rehash of two similar accusations dismissed by the Ombudsman back in August 2004 and in June 2012.
While the complaint smacks of manifest harassment against the Fuentebella spouses, all that the couple can do in the meantime is to seek the outright dismissal of the complaint on the ground of prior adjudication. Although the complaint is dismissable, the damage to the Fuentebella couple has already been inflicted on them in terms of the inconvenience and embarassment that went with it.
The Fuentebellas also stressed that the proximity of the complaint to the coming elections underscores the bad faith of the complainant who once sued his own father over local politics.
It seems that all that an innocent respondent can hope for is a speedy dismissal of the complaint against him. In most instances, however, that is virtually impossible. Clogged dockets indicate that delays in the disposition of cases are inevitable. There are also disturbing reports about corrupt investigators who delay the investigation process for a consideration from either the complainant or the respondent.
Indeed, justice delayed is justice denied, particularly when the respondent is innocent. The anxiety and the occasional sleepless nights that an innocent respondent is subjected to while his case remains pending with the Ombudsman are penalties by themselves. Thus, an innocent respondent whose case is eventually resolved in his favor, but only after the lapse of several years, can only sigh and assign his misfortune to experience.
Although the Office of the Ombudsman professes to apply the law evenly and swiftly on everybody, observers suspect favoritism on the part of the agency in the light of reports that high profile cases are either given top priority or allowed to slumber in the disposition process.
According to a public interest advocate, a case he filed in the Ombudsman against a senator, pertaining to the senator’s unreported ownership of property in New York City, has been slumbering for years, and a case he filed against an ex-city vice mayor who publicly admitted having received P80 million in bribe money remains pending.
The Ombudsman cannot require a complainant to pay a docket fee just to discourage unfounded complaints. Such a requirement is tantamount to making the right and the duty to report crime in the corridors of power dependent on one’s capacity to pay. It will also mean that criminal justice is for sale in this country. When Raul Gonzalez was Justice Secretary, he came out with a directive requiring complainants to pay a docket fee in criminal cases. The directive was so unpopular and objectionable that the DoJ later revoked it.
This is the sad state of cases involving innocent respondents who are sued in the Office of the Ombudsman. Unless something can be done to solve this problem, the inevitable conclusion is that anyone who seeks public office should prepare to face harassment suits, especially when elections are just around the corner.