Ombudsman’s decisions being peddled?

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AL S. VITANGCOL III

I WROTE in this column last week that the Office of the Ombudsman is seemingly a fractured institution and should be revamped, if not totally overhauled. I was proven right by the recent events involving the Office of the Ombudsman.

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Pangasinan Rep. Amado Espino and his son, Mayor Jumel Espino, have three pending cases before the Ombudsman. Apparently, these cases are already submitted for decision and corresponding resolutions will be rendered soon.

According to a National Bureau of Investigation report, the Ombudsman’s senior graft investigator (SGI) Leonardo Nicolas and his cousin, lawyer Isagani Nicolas of the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC), decided to peddle these pending cases for some three million pesos.

Graft Investigator Nicolas initially contacted lawyer Geraldine Baniqued, the provincial legal officer of Pangasinan, to solicit payment in exchange for the favorable resolutions of the cases. Since money was involved, Baniqued said that it was beyond her turf to discuss it. She then referred Nicolas to Arturo Soriano, the provincial accountant.

Soriano decided to entrap Nicolas.

Soriano met the SGI Nicolas on July 14 at the Star Plaza. Later that day, SGI Nicolas and lawyer Nicolas of the NLRC met with Soriano at the Lenox Hotel in Dagupan City to discuss the terms of the deal. The two demanded P1 million for each of the cases. The SGI promised to bring copies of the favorable resolutions, signed and approved by Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales. Soriano delayed the talks as he had to inform Congressman Espino first.

On July 19, Soriano received a call from SGI Nicolas demanding immediate payment because the resolutions were about to be released. He warned that the Espinos would be dismissed from service if the money was not paid. Soriano set a date for their next meeting for July 21.

Meanwhile, Espino sought the assistance of the National Bureau of Investigation in Manila and an entrapment operation was planned.

On July 21, NBI agents from Manila arrived at the Capitol Resort Hotel in Lingayen and an entrapment operation was laid in place. SGI Nicolas and the NLRC’s Nicolas were arrested by the NBI-Special Task Force at around 5:00 p.m. that same day.

What does this story tell us?

Well, the Office of the Ombudsman is manned by graft investigators who are seemingly grafters themselves – apparently cashing in on the misery of the public officials facing complaints and investigations. This is not new. I have heard and experienced these stories before.

Once a fellow lawyer suddenly called me, after a hiatus of about three years, and intimated that his associate had requested him to contact me. He explained to me that this guy had some influence at the Ombudsman’s Office and that he had “closed” a number of cases there.

They offered to “fix” a case pending before the Ombudsman. Naturally, I inquired how much money was involved. It was a big amount and I rejected it outright. First, I don’t believe in fixing cases – I believe that cases should be decided based their merit. Second, I don’t have that kind of money.

Alas, I am mistaken. Cases before the Office of the Ombudsman are not decided based on the merits alone. The decision is based on the prevailing political situation. It is based on public perception. It is based on one’s political connections. Of course, some are based on how much it can be “bought” or “fixed”.

We should use the President’s words, when he lambasted the Ombudsman, as a guide – “Bakit iyang Ombudsman, hindi corrupt? Tanungin mo kaya lahat ng nagkaroon ng kaso diyan. You cannot take care of your own Ombudsman. I had dealings with them when I was a prosecutor. Ayusin mo yang Ombudsman mo.”

But who will prosecute the Ombudsman’s special graft investigators? The Office of the Ombudsman itself? We cannot expect anything from it but a mere whitewash. Remember, a week has already passed but the Ombudsman remains silent on the alleged crimes of their own Leonardo Nicolas. Special treatment? I am sure that Nicolas would not be so brazen if he has no higher-ups backing him.

Another concern is the way decisions are penned. It is a senior graft investigator who writes the resolution for approval by Carpio-Morales. There is a line there that says, “APPROVED/DISAPPROVED”. Carpio-Morales simply strikes out the applicable word and affixes her signature and the date. The Ombudsman’s security seal is then pasted on it. Behold, the resolution is now official.

This incident should impel Congressman Espino to amend the Ombudsman’s Act of 1989, the law which created the Office of the Ombudsman. He should call for a congressional inquiry, in aid of legislation, and require Carpio-Morales herself to explain why these things are happening under her nose.

The Office of the Ombudsman should be revamped. Graft investigators, who are grafters themselves, must be immediately removed, prosecuted, and incarcerated. The time to do it is now.

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