SEVERAL lawyers and opinion writers have started to gang up on Atty. Samuel Martires, chief of the Office of the Ombudsman, about his new policy that restricts the access of the public, the media, other government officials and almost all Filipinos, to the Statement of Assets and Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) that every government official or employee are mandated by law to file.
Ombudsman Martires explained to the members of the House of Representatives during a hearing on the P3.36-billion budget of the Office of the Ombudsman next year that he decided to restrict public access to SALN records of elected officials and other government executives because the document is being “weaponized” against them.
‘“He’s our boy,” we could almost hear the congressmen say.’
In a memorandum last Sept. 1, Martires imposed three conditions on those needing copies of officials’ SALN: if the official or his/her representative requests it, if a court orders its release in relation to a pending case, or if a request is made through the Ombudsman’s field office for the purpose of a fact-finding investigation.
The new policy has met the vehement rejection from a wide range of legal minds, many of them belonging to opposing camps: from former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales to crusading lawyer Larry Gadon. Morales said it is important to aid the public in pursuing complaints against erring public servants by allowing them access to SALN records. The feisty lady lawyer did not mince words in lecturing to her successor, stressing that the SALN, bank records and other documents will strengthen testimonial evidence in building up a case against the corrupt in government.
Gadon has a rather personal reason in opposing the new restrictions on SALN access. We and the public will remember him as the lawyer who started the impeachment process against then Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, who was later ousted thru a quo warranto case for failure to file the SALN for several years when she was working at the University of the Philippines.
Attorney Gadon based his arguments now against Martires by expounding on the letter and intent of Republic Act 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials.
“The exclusive power of the Ombudsman is that he can ask and examine documents from other agencies to verify the contents of the SALN in connection with an investigation … but not the power to deny access by the public on the SALN itself,” explained Gadon. He pointed out that the novel restrictions contradict the essence and purpose of the SALN, and that the law itself provides for the right of the public on its access.
Martires is a veteran and seasoned lawyer, and Gadon need not remind him that transparency and the citizens’ right to information are indispensable in achieving clean and correct democratic policies. The Ombudsman already knows this, because it is his office’s reason for being, and yet he chose to restrict, even undermine, this mandate.
For this reason, the House of Representatives even gave him a bonus of P1.31 billion, increasing further his requested budget of P3.36 billion to P4.67 billion for the OOO (Office of the Ombudsman).
“He’s our boy,” we could almost hear the congressmen say.