Getting More Than Just a Bark

On the campaign trail that eventually led him to the presidency, then-Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III rode on the wave of change – promising sweeping and drastic reforms in government.

On the campaign trail that eventually led him to the presidency, then-Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III rode on the wave of change – promising sweeping and drastic reforms in government. In fact, Aquino’s main campaign theme was rooting out corruption (Kapag walang corrupt, walang mahirap) and restoring the Philippine society’s moral fiber (Dadalhin ko kayo sa tuwid na landas) – a theme that pre-supposes and underlined a dismal performance of the previous administration on these two vital issues.

That’s why not many were surprised when, shortly upon assumption to office, Aquino swiftly trained his sights on the Office of the Ombudsman that carries the mandate of promoting integrity, efficiency, and high ethical standards in public service through prompt investigation of complaints and aggressive prosecution of cases filed against erring officials and employees.

In particular, Aquino exerted pressure for the ouster of Merceditas Gutierrez – a Constitutional appointee – as Ombudsman, whose close ties with former First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, suggested partiality to and possibly the non-prosecution of the former First Family from various allegations of corruption leveled against them.

 

On one hand, Gutierrez – whose term expires on 2012 (well into the Aquino presidency) – may have a point in retaliating against strong pressure coming from Malacañang. An Ombudsman need not be an ally of the President to perform its duties and functions.

On the other hand, however, impartiality and independence are not the sole requisites for the Ombudsman to catch bad guys in government. Equally important is having an Ombudsman that is fully capable and equipped to thoroughly and competently investigate, prosecute and penalize erring government officials.

For one, the Ombudsman Act of 1989 – which governs the Ombudsman’s execution of its duties – not only has proven to be insufficient in equipping the institution to go after corrupt government officials, it has also failed to keep up with the times as reflected by the many problems that now saddle the institution.

The Ombudsman has been criticized for its failure to effectively investigate and prosecute cases involving corrupt officials. Its ranks are also troubled by demoralization, given the lack of resources to support competitive salaries and benefits for its officials and employees – exposing the watchdogs themselves to graft and corruption.

“The Office of the Ombudsman, unlike other vital government agencies, lacks fiscal autonomy. The Office of the Ombudsman cannot attract and employ topnotch people and experts because, with this lack of fiscal independence, the salaries it offers are much lower compared to those given in the private sector. Its employees cannot fully perform their duties due to lack of equipment and logistic support,” Rep. Karlo Nograles said.

“Worse, with their meager salaries, the officers and employees of the Office of the Ombudsman are susceptible to commit graft and corruption.”

In both Houses of Congress, several bills have been filed to address the Ombudsman’s funding woes, by appropriating between 10%-30% of the value of properties that were illegally acquired by public officials for the use of the Ombudsman.

There are also bills seeking to empower the Ombudsman by increasing its investigative and prosecutor powers. SB 1447 and HB 846 seek to give the Ombudsman the power to issue subpoenas in order to look into bank records even prior to the filing of a case before the court; issue motu propio a freeze order on illegally-acquired assets; provide immunity from criminal and administrative charges or civil suits to Ombudsman investigators and prosecutors arising from the regular exercise of the duties; and allow the Ombudsman to impose penalties even during election period.

SB 107 also proposes a mandatory signing of waivers by government officials which will allow the government to examine their finances, including their bank accounts and investments in government bonds. While SB 2174 seeks to authorize the Ombudsman to hire private lawyers to assist in the handling of pending cases.

Other pending bills HB 2159 that pushes for the exemption from the Salary Standardization law and HB 412 that seeks to establish a retirement benefit system for prosecutors in the Ombudsman.

But the question is: Will the President actively push any or all of these measures that seek to strengthen the capacity of the Office of the Ombudsman to prosecute erring government officials, even if it means empowering the incumbent Ombudsman whom he seeks to unseat?

It is only with naiveté that one can expect the Aquino administration to solve the country’s corruption problem in one swoop. After all, corruption is already very deeply entrenched in the bureaucracy with decades and decades of its unbridled practice. The Aquino government, however, is expected to at the very least make headways in this area by instituting solid reform measures that aim to curb, if not totally eliminate, corruption in government.

At the end of the day, this administration’s success will depend on how well it will deliver on its many promises to the people, foremost of which is to clean up the bureaucracy.