SC justices, Ombudsman, House keep SALNs secret -

SC justices, Ombudsman, House keep SALNs secret -

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IN ONE of the eight articles of impeachment against Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona, the 188 members of the House of Representatives who signed the complaint censured him for refusing to disclose his statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth or SALN.

By their act, the House members raised a virtual Sword of Damocles over those in public office who insist on keeping the full details of their SALNs secret.

But the House accusers could well be accused of a similar omission, and culpable violation of the Constitution and anti-graft laws. Indeed, the PCIJ’s records from 2006 to December 2011 reveal a sorry picture of rank non-disclosure of SALNs not just by Corona and all the justices of the high court since 1992, but also by the incumbent House members who have brought him to trial.

Worst, defiance of the SALN law has been shown as well by the Office of the Ombudsman under Aquino appointee Conchita Carpio-Morales, a retired Supreme Court associate justice who became Ombudsman in July 2011.

If one’s failure to disclose SALNs is now an impeachable offense, then a long list of officials should also now be expunged from public office, including Ombudsman Carpio-Morales and by their own assertion, even 185 of the 188 members of the 15th Congress who filed the impeachment complaint against Corona but have not disclosed copies of their own SALNs.

Thus far, only two of the 282 members of the 15th Congress have actually disclosed copies of their 2010 SALN upon request: Mohammed Hussein P. Pangandaman (Lanao del Sur) and Maximo B. Rodriguez Jr. (PL-Abante Mindanao). Neither is among the 188 signatories to the impeachment complaint that the House had submitted to the Senate impeachment court.

The PCIJ was able to obtain the 2010 SALNs of five more members of the Lower House, including three who had signed the impeachment complaint against Corona. But that was only because their SALNs seem to have been mixed inadvertently with the asset records of the members of the 14th Congress that PCIJ was allowed to photocopy early this year.

Summary compliance?

Last year, in apparent creative defiance of Republic Act No. 6713, or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials – which requires disclosure to the public of the actual copies of SALNs – the House merely issued a public release on the summaries of the net worth of the House members.

This is even as the PCIJ had filed four request letters for SALNs of the members of the 15th Congress from September 2010 to December 2011. The first three were addressed to House Secretary General Marilyn B. Yap. The fourth and most recent letter dated Dec. 19, 2011 was addressed to the House justice committee chair, Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr., lead prosecutor in the Corona impeachment trial.

Simultaneously, also on Dec. 19, 2011, the PCIJ sent a new request letter to the Supreme Court addressed to Court Administrator Midas P. Marquez, in yet another effort to secure the SALNs of Corona and his 14 associate justices, from their first year of appointment to the tribunal.

Last week, Marquez had promised to give the PCIJ an official statement from the tribunal on its latest request but also said that because of Corona’s upcoming impeachment trial, positive action may not come. The first en banc session of the high court is scheduled on Jan. 17, 2012 yet, he said.

In October 2008, the PCIJ had filed a pleading with the “Special Committee to Review the Policy on SALNs and PDS” chaired by then Justice Minita V. Chico-Nazario that the en banc had created, in response to repeated requests that PCIJ had filed since 2001 for the SALNs of the justices and judges.

The PCIJ is a party to the Administrative Matter 09-8-06 SC and 09-8-07-CA cases filed with the committee. After Nazario’s retirement in 2010, the committee’s task has supposedly been entrusted to a new study committee headed by Marquez.

The high court’s policy to recede in the dark, especially where SALNs of all judiciary personnel are concerned, actually began with Andres B. Narvasa, who served as chief justice from December 8, 1991 to November 30, 1998. The Narvasa court had been marred by reports, including a number authored by the PCIJ, alleging multiple instances of bribery and corruption involving some justices. “The best Supreme Court that money can buy,” legal circles had described the tribunal at the time.

The exposes triggered the early retirement of an associate justice even as the Narvasa court also summoned lawyers it suspected to be among the PCIJ’¦s unnamed sources to an inquiry board composed of justices at Padre Faura.

Those who succeeded Narvasa, Hilario G. Davide Jr. (who served from November 30, 1998 to December 20, 2005), Reynato S. Puno (who served from December 20, 2005 to May 17, 2010), and Corona (chief justice since May 2010) followed the practice of secrecy in regard to the SALNs of all judiciary personnel.

Not lawful compliance

The Constitution and anti-graft laws require the disclosure of the real, detailed SALNs of public officials, within 10 working days after these have been filed within the yearly April 30 deadline. Disclosing summaries of entries in the SALNs, such as what the 15th Congress and two associate justices had done recently, is not contemplated in the law as full compliance.

To be fair, supposedly as an accommodation of the PCIJ, the House shared copies of the SALNs of the members of the 14th Congress under Speaker Prospero Nograles, Jr. that ended its term of office in May 2010.

Still, even Tupas, interviewed by the PCIJ, acknowledged the gross omission of the House in withholding copies of the 2010 SALNs of the current legislators. “Yes, what should be revealed are the full details of the assets, liabilities, and net worth, copies of the SALNs,” he told PCIJ.

“I didn’t know until recently that was how it’s done in the House. I didn’t know it’s that bad. I didn’t know this issue with SALNs is that complicated,” Tupas said.

“The point is, in the Supreme Court, there is zero compliance,” he said. “The Constitutional provision is clear: Release your SALNs, that is compliance.” He said he was willing to release his own SALN, adding that, “we have to start somewhere somehow in enforcing the law.”

Tupas admits that by their failure, a long line of public officials, possibly including the Ombudsman, constitutional commissioners, and House members, who have failed to disclose their SALNs might now have to be summoned as candidates for possible impeachment. Promised Tupas: “I will hold hearings on compliance with the SALNs law soon. For all other SALNs, there should be a congressional investigation.”

Over the last 26 months, the PCIJ had filed and refiled request letters over to secure copies of the SALNs, Personal Data Sheets/Curriculum Vitae (PDS/CVs) of the members of the Lower Chamber. Four letters were filed with the 15th Congress to secure copies of the SALNs as of July 2010 (assumption of office) and December 2010. For the 14th Congress, PCIJ wrote two letters of request, the first in October 2009, the second in May 2010.

‘Tedious’ process

Failing to get a response, PCIJ included its request for such documents for members of the 14th Congress in subsequent letters asking for copies of similar sets of papers covering the 15th Congress.

The PCIJ sent letters of requests dated Sept. 6, 2010, Feb. 17, 2011, and Feb. 24, 2011 to Marilyn B. Yap, House secretary general for the SALNs and the personal data sheets/curriculum vitae (PDS/CVs) of the members of the 14th Congress, and the members of the 15th Congress, upon their assumption into office as of June/July 2010, and as of December 2010.

Yap approved the release of SALNs filed for 2008 and 2009 of the members of the 14th Congress, which was dominated by allies of then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. But the request for those of the 15th Congress members was denied.

On May 4, 2011, Director Roberto P. Maling of the Secretary General’s Office told PCIJ that the Records Management Service would not able to provide copies of the SALNs because the process is “tedious.” He said PCIJ was able to get copies of the 2008 and 2009 SALNs because the Records Office just made an exemption.

When asked about future SALN requests, Maling said the House of Representatives will only provide a summary of the assets, liabilities, and net worth of the House members and not the actual copies of the document.

Pangandaman and Rodriguez of the 15th House, however, on their own sent PCIJ copies of the SALN in response to its request.

Secured by mistake

The PCIJ also obtained the July 2010 SALNs of incumbent Representatives Pastor M. Alcover Jr. (PL-Anad), Dakila Carlo E. Cua (Quirino), Salvio B. Fortuno (Camarines Sur), and Alfredo A. Garbin, Jr. (PL-Ako Bicol), and the December 2010 SALN of Rep. Herminia B. Roman (Bataan). By some fluke, these had been included among the SALNs of the members of the 14th Congress that PCIJ was allowed to photocopy.

Cua, Garbin, and Roman signed the impeachment complaint against Corona; Pangandaman, Pastor, and Rodriguez did not. Fortuno’s name does not appear in either list.

Yet before 2008, the Office of the Secretary General of the House of Representatives had responded favorably to requests from the PCIJ for copies of the SALNs and PDS/CVs of the House members.

Senate compliant

The Senate is by far the most exemplary agency in its compliance with the law. It has consistently disclosed the asset records of all its members over the years, including those making up the current Upper House.

On Dec. 19, 2011, PCIJ, still bent on getting copies of the SALNs of the members of the 15th House, filed a sixth letter request, this time addressed to Rep. Tupas. A copy of the request was furnished to Secretary General Yap.

The request was apparently forwarded to Maling, who promptly rang up the PCIJ office phone the same afternoon. When greeted with a courtesy “good afternoon” by the PCIJ staffer who had picked up the phone, Maling replied that it didn’t look like a good afternoon at all and that he had read the PCIJ letter. He then said that if PCIJ wanted the SALN of the members of prosecution panel, it should fill out the SALN request form and pay for the reproduction cost.

Maling also said that he had assumed that the summary generated by the House had been sufficient for PCIJ’s purposes. Reminded that the PCIJ did not agree to this and precisely sent follow-up request letters for the complete SALNs, he said the PCIJ’s reasons for securing the SALNs – research, reporting, and updating of its database and library files – were “manipis” or “superficial.”

Maling said the House did not mean to hold the documents, but asked whyever the PCIJ needed the details of the assets of the House members. He asserted that under the law, disclosure of such documents is not just for “whatever” legal purpose and is “not absolute.”

On May 11, 2011, the House released a 2010 SALN summary list signed by Atty. Ricardo Bering of the House Records Management Service and Director Jose Ma. Antonio Tuaño of the Administrative Management Bureau.

It contained the total amount of the real properties, personal and other properties, assets, liabilities and net worth of the members of the 15th Congress ranked from highest to lowest by net worth. News reports about the list ran on May 13 and 14, 2011.

Carpio-Morales, too

It seemed to be a case of déjà vu for PCIJ, which had earlier heard a similar argument from the Ombudsman’s Office.

On Sept. 8, 2011, the PCIJ filed with the office of Ombudsman Carpio-Morales an omnibus request for copies of the SALNs of President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III, Vice President Jejomar C. Binay, former Ombudsman Merceditas N. Gutierrez, and other senior officials of the Ombudsman, among others.

In the same request letter, the PCIJ also sought Carpio-Morales’s assistance in securing the SALNs and the PDS/CVs of the members of the House of Representatives, executives of the constitutional commissions, the Supreme Court justices, and star-rank officers of the uniformed services. Previously, these PCIJ requests had all been denied and referred to other agencies like the Office of the President and the Ombudsman.

Attached to the request to the Ombudsman were the letters of denials and referrals from the same agencies that PCIJ had collected over the last six years.

The PCIJ asked Carpio-Morales to help reverse the tide of non-compliance with the SALN law. Instead of doing so, Carpio-Morales, replying through Assistant Ombudsman Asryman T. Rafanan, simply advised the PCIJ to file a new request, as had been required by the controversial Memorandum Circular No. 01 Series of 2009 that was issued by her impeached predecessor Merceditas N. Gutierrez.

Gutierrez’s restrictive circular provides “that the requester should accomplish a SALN Request Form which should, among others, identify or indicate a legitimate reason as the purpose for the request, and which should be subscribed and sworn to before any prosecutor in the Office of the Ombudsman.” The requirement for the request to be subscribed and sworn to before a prosecutor is not required in the SALN law.

Nonetheless, the PCIJ had precisely filed a sworn SALN Request Form on March 30, 2011, in compliance with Gutierrez’s circular. A copy was attached to the PCIJ letter addressed to Carpio-Morales. But Rafanan apparently did not even browse through sheafs of documents that the PCIJ submitted in its omnibus request for the SALNs of all other officials who have rebuffed the PCIJ’s requests for SALNs since 2006.

The PCIJ also wrote that its request was made “to assist our work as journalists and researchers.” But Rafanan replied, “(You) have not advanced a clear and specific legitimate reason to justify you request for the release of the PDS or the disclosure of information of a personal nature of the enumerated public officials whose PDS are in the custody of the Office of the Ombudsman.”

Rafanan added, “The CV is not a public document but a private document, which is not required by the Civil Service Commission to be filed by a public official or employee.”

Told about the evident reluctance of the new Ombudsman to lift the veil of secrecy on SALNs, Tupas remarked: “The new Ombudsman should be the role model here in releasing SALNs. We impeached Merci Gutierrez for not disclosing her SALN.”

Valte won’t disclose

Interestingly, until four months ago, even the president’s deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte had cited “security” concerns arising from the disclosure of SALNs as one more reason why she said Aquino is reluctant to endorse the Freedom of Information bill.

At a press conference on Sept. 23, 2011, Valte had voiced her reluctance to reveal her own SALN. “That for me personally is a concern because I’m the one here (in government) and not my family,” she said. “These are the types of concerns that we are trying to solve when it comes to the freedom of information bill.”

Yet just two days after the impeachment complaint against Corona was filed on Dec. 12, 2011, no less than President Aquino challenged the former to go public with his asset records. Two days later on Dec. 15, Valte’s immediate boss and Aquino spokesperson Edwin Lacierda exhorted the high court to reverse its resolution banning the disclosure of the SALNs of the justices, judges, and all other personnel of the judiciary.

“Under the Constitution,” Lacierda said, “it is very, very clear that all government officials, and in fact the Supreme Court was mentioned in that particular constitutional provision that they should disclose to the public their statement of assets and liabilities.”

“They can change the ruling anytime because that is an internal process for them,” he said. “That is an internal decision for them. Since we are calling for transparency, for accountability, I don’t think that is an unreasonable request for the public to know the statement of assets, liability (sic), and net worth of any government official.”

According to Lacierda, “kami na nasa executive branch, we are more subjected to threats. We deal with the people more. We are more exposed and yet we willingly disclose our SALN so there should be no reason for them not to disclose. It is not unreasonable for the public to request for the release of their SALN.” – With research and reporting by Karol Anne M. Ilagan, PCIJ, January 2012

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