Filipinos “will be in for a surprise.”
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales on Thursday said it would take “much less” than a year, not one year as she earlier surmised, to resolve whether to dismiss the plunder and malversation charges filed against 38 people, including lawmakers, or proceed with a preliminary investigation. The charges were in connection with the pork barrel scam.
Speaking at the 3rd Integrity Summit in Makati City, Morales said she gave the one-year timetable based on newspaper photos of the so-called “truckload of evidence” that the National Bureau of Investigation had submitted to her office. She was then responding to a query in a Senate budget hearing.
“Yesterday (Wednesday), I had a field day going over the first batch of documentary evidence submitted by the NBI and I assure you that you will be in for a surprise …. It’s going to take much less [than a year],” Morales said, as the participants applauded in approval.
In an interview with reporters later, Morales refused to qualify the meaning of “less than a year.”
“Secret,” she said in jest.
Pressed if this would mean a speedier review of documents, she quipped, “Definitely … We have to resolve, we just don’t dismiss, we just don’t file [charges]. We have to assess the evidence.”
Asked further about her impression of the “truckload of evidence” after going over the documents, Morales said some of the documents were actually just “photocopies of the documents, thus the volume.”
On Wednesday, the opposition in the House of Representatives said the one-year time frame for the Ombudsman to determine “probable cause” to elevate the cases to the Sandiganbayan antigraft court was too long.
“Let us not forget that justice delayed is no justice at all,” said House Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora.
At the summit, Morales said she had not issued any order to freeze the assets of any of the accused, including three senators and eight former House members.
“There is this spurious document which was purportedly issued by me that I froze the assets of a certain person,” she said.
“We’re investigating that now because there are people who are so unscrupulous that they invent resolutions or orders. I don’t have the right to freeze assets,” she said.
In her speech, Morales said corruption had always been the biggest problem in the system, noting the difficulty of removing public servants who enjoy security of tenure.
“But I’ve always believed in leadership by example. If the leader is clean, is upright, is honest, I think everyone will try to toe the line but you cannot remove all the bad eggs,” she said.
Morales said the private sector could help the government in the fight against corruption by reporting cases of corrupt persons or agencies, identifying themselves and providing leads so her office would not be groping in the dark.
“You know which agencies are most corrupt and yet you seem to be doing nothing,” she said.
“You bark but your bark does not reach the powers that be. You bark aloud and you bite too. Don’t just bark, you also bite,” she stressed.
Commission on Audit (COA) Chair Grace Pulido-Tan, who was also present at the summit, said the commission’s role was to turn over the source documents on the audit of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to the Office of the Ombudsman and to walk the investigators through the evidence.
Tan denied that it took whistle-blower Benhur Luy to give the public a complete picture of the scam when the COA was supposed to do this.
“It’s not correct,” she said, adding that the COA started the special audit on the pork barrel in 2010 and finished it in July 2012.
Benhur validates findings
Tan said it took the COA another year to validate the findings of auditors with certain agencies considering the voluminous transactions and the number of persons involved.
The COA chief said she herself was involved in the editing of the report after validation and in removing findings that were not supported by evidence.
Tan said the “explosive” report was supposed to be released in July in time for the opening of Congress but decided against it so as not to distract the legislators at the time.
But when Luy came out and started talking, Tan said the COA realized that the whistle-blower was “validating” the agency’s findings, thus, she decided to finally release the report a month after.
In her speech, Tan said she was able to finally eliminate the culture of patronage in the COA by simply disregarding the endorsement letters for hiring and promotions coming from lawmakers, Cabinet secretaries and other high officials.
“It’s a mind-set that we want to change. Of course, it’s systemic and I don’t think that it will take this generation to completely undo it. It will take several generations perhaps,” she said.
For his part, Senate President Franklin Drilon told the Integrity Summit that the Senate did not turn a blind eye to the people’s indignation at PDAF issues and was actually listening intently to their sentiments.
“We understand the depth of the people’s anger. We also understand that it is not only directed at the personalities involved but at the entire institution as well,” Drilon said.
He said the Senate would “continue to listen and to stand for the truth even if the truth may hurt our chamber. We will do so because this is the only way to strengthen our democracy and institutions.”
He also mentioned the role of four women “purists” who are at the helm, namely Morales, Tan, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares.
Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, also a speaker at the summit, said the real test of a “functioning” democracy in a nation confronted with an issue like the pork barrel scam was not only when people have the freedom to express outrage but also when the bodies tasked with addressing such a problem were functioning.
The Chief Justice said the COA was the “most important constitutional body” in ensuring that public funds were released and expended with “fidelity.”
And when the COA comes out with a report of audit, she said the Constitution provides for specific roles that the President and Congress play in acting on the audit reports.
For the President, he is expected to act on the COA report in accordance with his “faithful execution of the laws” under Section 5 Article VII of the Constitution.
“The spectrum of actions he can perform under his ‘supervision and control’ powers is wide, and for this purpose, he cannot only investigate administratively the performance of any executive department agency as a response to the report. He can execute personnel movements and take all necessary actions to protect government assets from misuse,” Sereno said.
For its part, Congress is mandated to make sure of the lawful use of public resources and that these are economically, efficiently and effectively used, according to Sereno. This can be done during the annual budget deliberations.
Access to information
The people, too, have a role to play because public officers are accountable to them.
“The Constitution empowers the people to take an active role in checking the government by allowing citizens to access information of public concern,” she said. People can file complaints in the Ombudsman who, as protector of the people, is required to act promptly on complaints.
Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, who represented Aquino in the summit, said the Department of Budget and Management would no longer release the remaining PDAF of legislators for 2013 because of a temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court.
The summit was organized by the Makati Business Club and the European Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines—With a report from Michelle V. Remo