THE Constitution describes the Ombudsman and his or her deputies as “the protectors of the people.” And they are mandated to act promptly on complaints filed in any form or manner against public officials or employees of the government.
The Ombudsman can recommend with respect to a public official or employee at fault his removal, suspension, demotion, fine, censure, or prosecution.
Under the presidency of Benigno BS. Aquino 3rd, our current Ombudsman, Ms. Conchita Carpio-Morales, has enjoyed high prominence as the country’s chief graftbuster and scourge of graft and corruption. Top officials stand in dread of her and her office.
All this is fine and reassuring to the citizen, but what happens when the graftbuster herself breaks the law or the rules in carrying out her duties? What protection does the public have from its advocate and watchdog?
These questions have risen of late with respect to Ombudsman Morales because of two criticisms that have recently been leveled against her and her office.
One criticism is the claim of the counsel of Vice President Jejomar Binay, who has complained that Ombudsman Morales, in defending herself against a P200 million civil damages suit filed by Binay against her, has violated the Ombudsman’s Act, which bans her from utilizing the Solicitor General and government lawyers from her office for her defense, since the suit filed against her is not against her as an Ombudsman, but in her personal capacity.
Violations of the Ombudsman and Anti-Graft Acts
It was the deputy Ombudsman who prepared her affidavit, which shows that she used government lawyers and the resources of government, which violates the anti-graft and corrupt practices act.
Binay’s lawyer contends that Morales should be charged with violating the Ombudsman Act and the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.
An even more serious criticism of Ombudsman Morales concerns her alleged abuse of the law with respect to the impeachment of former Chief Justice Renato Corona.
No less than a Sandiganbayan Justice has accused the Ombudsman of violating the law when she used Chief Justice Renato Corona’s bank accounts at his impeachment trial.
Associate Sandiganbayan Justice Samuel Martires has said in a much-discussed dissenting opinion that the evidence used against Corona is “poison” and should not be used in his perjury case before the Sandiganbayan.
Martires said Corona’s bank documents were obtained by the Ombudsman despite laws – such as Republic Act 1405 or the “Law on Secrecy of Bank Deposits,” and RA 6426 or the “Foreign Currency Deposits Act” – which protect the absolute confidentiality of such records.
“The bank documents never became public in nature, and were therefore protected by absolute confidentiality of bank deposits… Hence, whatever documents the Ombudsman has gathered from banks are considered ‘fruits of the poisonous tree’ and must therefore be disregarded by the Court,” he said.
Martires added that the Ombudsman went under the table in obtaining the bank documents without Corona’s consent or any court order.
“Considering that there is no showing that a specific consent or authority was given by the accused Corona to the Ombudsman or the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), there is likewise neither authority nor legal basis for the Ombudsman or the BIR to obtain the bank records of accused Corona,” Martires said.
Hostile witness’ poisonous fruits against Corona
The Ombudsman’s explosive evidence against Corona is a 17-page report from the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), which detailed Corona’s $12 million in “fresh deposits” in five banks where he maintained 82 dollar accounts between 2003 and 2012.
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales submitted a copy of the AMLC report to the Senate impeachment court in 2012 when she served as hostile witness for the defense and testified on the Ombudsman’s findings into Corona’s alleged ill-gotten wealth.
Martires said the Sandiganbayan as a judicial body should not use evidence presented before a “political” court.
“The Ombudsman based its resolution (finding probable cause) from the proceedings during the impeachment trial of accused Corona. Regrettably, whatever evidence was presented during the impeachment trial is political in nature while judicial proceedings involve legal judgment that is based on laws and rules of evidence,” Martires said.
Corona was impeached by Congress in 2012 on false declarations of wealth in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN). He is now facing a charge of perjury and violation of the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees for his alleged undeclared assets.
We think these two criticisms against the Ombudsman merit closer scrutiny because they touch upon the vital issue of prudence and circumspection on the part of public officials whom we have designated as protectors of the public interest.
When violations of the law are committed in the discharge of their duties, they deserve full censure and appropriate punishment.
In the case of the Ombudsman, she can only be removed from office by impeachment. Because of the political nature of her actuations, it is unlikely that Congress at this time will entertain any thoughts of impeaching her.
The realities of politics notwithstanding, however, we believe it is important to stress that the Ombudsman as our public advocate and chief graftbuster must always act within the bounds of the law.
She is a vital cog of our system of government. Ombudsman Morales should know this and do better.