‘Corruption to escalate with Ombudsman abolition’

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    FORMER Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales yesterday warned of an upsurge of corruption in government offices if the Office of the Ombudsman is dissolved.

    Morales, who retired in 2018 after finishing her seven-year stint as chief graft buster, was reacting to the statement of her successor Ombudsman Samuel Martires that the agency should be abolished if nobody trusts it anymore by coming forward to testify about irregularities by public officials.

    “To abolish the office will open floodgates to the commission of more corrupt activities,” the former Ombudsman said.

    Speaking at the budget hearing of his office before the House committee on appropriations, Martires lamented that investigators have met difficulty in getting witnesses to testify on allegations of corruption. He specifically mentioned the Bureau of Customs.

    Without help from insiders, he complained that the allegations are no better than rumors since they cannot be proven or backed by evidence that will stand in court.

    Morales however said when it comes to investigating corruption, the case build up should not simply rely on people coming forward to offer testimonies against powerful officials.

    “Testimonial evidence is not the only evidence to build up a case. There are also documentary evidence like the SALN (statements of assets, liabilities and net worth), and AMLC (Anti-Money Laundering Council) records,” she pointed out.

    In addition, the former Ombudsman added that there are also physical objects as well as circumstantial evidence that should be evaluated.

    For documents that are in custody of other government agencies or private entities, she noted that the Ombudsman and the courts have the power to issue subpoena duces tecum.

    When Morales joined the Ombudsman in 2011, it had 19,000 pending caseload most of which have been unmoving for years. By the time she retired in 2018, the number had gone down to only 6,000 cases.

    Meanwhile, Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon urged Martires to submit specific proposals to Congress to strengthen the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

    Drilon made the call after Martires said during the same budget hearing that he implemented a change in policies in his office since some provisions of the law were already illogical and vague.

    Among the changes Martires implemented were to put a stop to lifestyle checks on public officials and restrict public access to statements of assets and net worth.

    “I call on the Ombudsman to submit to Congress his proposed amendments to RA 6713 to strengthen it and make the law more attuned to the present times. I suspect that the views of the Ombudsman reflect the thinking of the Supreme Court being a former member of the High Court and a Sandiganbayan justice,” Drilon told dzMM’s Teleradyo.

    Drilon said it will be a big boost in the fight against corruption if the concerns raised by the Ombudsman are addressed since “corruption cases are brought to the courts, the Ombudsman and the Sandiganbayan.”

    “Hence, it behooves Congress to listen to what the judiciary is saying and find out how it can amend the law and make it attuned with the times…We will examine the existing law and we will look at measures to further strengthen the principle of transparency,” he added.

    Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said he understood where Martires was coming from when he ordered a stop to the conduct of lifestyle check on government officials and employees.

    For Guevarra, a lifestyle check alone is not conclusive of the official’s wrongdoing.

    “I fully understand where the Honorable Ombudsman is coming from. Indeed, a lifestyle check as a stand-alone measure will not conclusively indicate whether a person is engaged in some wrongdoing to enrich himself,” Guevarra said.

    He added that lifestyle checks should be matched with an in-depth investigation on specific acts of corruption or other crimes.

    “It is meant to strengthen a finding of wrongdoing as manifested in the lifestyle of the person concerned. But in any event, government officials and employees, no matter how well-to-or wealthy they are, are encouraged to live and project modest life as public servant,” Guevarra said.

    While saying this, Guevarra said the lifestyle check being done by the Task Force PhilHealth on officials of the scandal-ridden Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) will continue. – With Raymond Africa and Ashzel Hachero