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Morales’ powers feared

Senators question Ombudsman on AMLC report
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales

MONEY TRAIL Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales presents the flow of dollars in bank accounts reportedly owned by Chief Justice Renato Corona during the impeachment trial. RAFFY LERMA

Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago on Tuesday set the tone of the questioning expressing apprehensions about an Ombudsman with unbridled investigative powers.

The feisty former trial judge took the measure of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales on the second day of Morales’ testimony as a hostile witness in the defense presentation on Day 38 of Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment trial.

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Laying the predicate, Santiago explained that the powers of the Ombudsman were merely copied from Article 11, Section 13 of the 1987 Constitution, which she said appeared to be “very plenary, infinite and wide-ranging.”

She “juxtaposed” these powers with other laws, such as the Foreign Currency Deposits Act, which guarantees the secrecy of foreign currency deposits, and the law creating the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC).

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Morales maintained that the Ombudsman Act of 1989 allowed her “to request assistance from agencies in connection with the discharge of my mandate.”

“Your position would logically lead to the conclusion that bank accounts of any public officer can be opened on mere request by the Ombudsman without any court order. But under the Ombudsman Act, the Ombudsman has no disciplinary authority over impeachable officials, members of Congress and the judiciary,” Santiago said.

The senator then asked:

“Are you of the opinion that should somebody file a complaint against any senator or member of the House, you can go straight to AMLC, and ask for records without going to the court or without waiting for probable cause to be found by the counsel itself?”

The Ombudsman responded by saying that it would “depend on the complaint.”

“But, hypothetically, if you find that the complaint is warranted, is that your view that you can just act on your own?” Santiago pressed on.

Mea culpa

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When Morales chose to repeat her answer without elaborating, the senator cried:

“I know that! But supposed that after (doing) all your internal procedures, and you have made a decision that the complaint is worthy of further consideration. Is it your considered opinion that, as in this case, you can just go direct to AMLC and not follow procedures in the AMLC law?”

The AMLC law provides that dollar accounts can only be disclosed if authorized by the depositor or upon order of a court.

“It would depend on the complaint,” Morales retorted, to which Santiago replied: “Well, you’re fudging your answer.”

Morales tried to protest, but Santiago admonished her, “You’re arguing with a senator-judge!”

“I’m sorry. Mea culpa,” said Morales.

Template for impeachments

Sen. Pia Cayetano called on her colleagues to discuss how they should appreciate the Morales testimony, reminding that whatever precedent is set in the Corona trial would serve as a template for future such proceedings, a view also echoed in questions by Sen. Gregorio Honasan, who worried about potential infringement of basic rights enshrined in the Constitution.

“Although this trial is a political process, the law should be applied equally to all those who are similarly situated. I would like to have the peace of mind that the Chief Justice is not being singled out here,” Honasan said.

“Section 22 of  the Ombudsman Law states (Morales’) power to investigate for purpose of filing verified impeachment complaint if warranted … We need to discuss how (her efforts) would be treated,” Cayetano cautioned.

“If the (Ombudsman’s) investigation is done in connection with a future complaint (against Corona), how are we as senator-judges supposed to appreciate that in this court? I will not offer a suggestion but would like this (issue) discussed in caucus,” she suggested.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said that under the rules on procedures and evidence, “he who produces a witness must be bound by (the witness’) testimony whether favorable or adverse to him.”

“The Ombudsman did not come here voluntarily to testify. She was presented as a witness (by the defense panel),” he pointed out. Enrile maintained that assets, whether acquired legally or otherwise, must be declared in Corona’s statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) and that is the only issue to be considered in the Morales testimony.

Corona is accused of fudging entries in his SALN, regarded as a betrayal of public trust and a culpable violation of the Constitution.

The defense had called on Morales to testify so Corona could be put on the witness stand to refute her accusations.

Only meritorious cases

Other senators also bristled at Morales’ revelation that her office could seek assistance from the AMLC in scrutinizing bank accounts of public officials who are subjects of graft and other complaints despite her contention that AMLC assistance would only be requested “as long as the leads and charges are meritorious.”

Senate Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano recalled that when he was investigating alleged irregularities committed under the Arroyo administration as Senate blue ribbon committee chair, he had difficulty convincing AMLC executive director Vicente Aquino to cooperate.

He cited in particular the fertilizer scam and the NBN-ZTE deal that involved millions in government funds believed to have been pocketed by ranking Arroyo officials.

“AMLC cannot give any information that time. Vicente Aquino said he needed a court order before he could scrutinize any bank account. But he did not say the Ombudsman could ask for these records,” Cayetano noted.

“So what is the present mindset of the Ombudsman? You can investigate and (the effort would) lead to impeachment? There is no need to amend the bank secrecy law and the SALN law and all the AMLC has to do is to be progressive? They can consider a transaction, even if it involves under P500,000, as a suspicious transaction and report it to you,” he said.

Debatable

Morales replied that Cayetano’s question involved “a debatable issue.”

Cayetano persisted in his questions, prompting Enrile to remind him that Corona’s impeachment trial “is not in aid of legislation.” But the senator explained that the issue is “of grave national importance.”

“Will the Ombudsman have a protocol where, if the nature of the complaint calls for AMLC to give information, would it be standard operating procedure regardless of friend or foe, will this now be the practice of the Ombudsman to write the AMLC and ask for information?” he said.

Morales told Cayetano that “if the request (to investigate) is in order, they (AMLC officials) will do. If not, they cite reasons why they cannot.”

Under questioning by Senate Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada, Morales said that the AMLC gave her office material in a case filed against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

On a concern by Estrada that the Ombudsman or the AMLC would be used by a vengeful administration, Morales said, “Mr. Senator, I would not jeopardize my 40 years of government service—spotless, I am immodest to say that—by allowing myself to be a tool of anyone in order to get back at certain persons against whom that anyone is sore at. I will assure you that.” With a report from Matikas Santos, INQUIRER.net

Originally posted: 9:09 pm | Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

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TAGS: AMLC, Anti-Money Laundering Council, Corona Impeachment, Corona impeachment trial, corruption, Ill-gotten wealth, Juan Ponce Enrile, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, Senate, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, Serafin Cuevas, Supreme Court Justice Renato Corona
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