Ombudsman Morales: Tough inquisitor has a soft side
She is known as the tough-talking prosecutor of the corrupt.
Note how those eyebrows are raised almost permanently like they were her insignia of courage and strength.
But beneath the seemingly uncrackable shell, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales keeps a rarely seen soft side—her sense of humor, which is as blunt as it is unexpected.
“My life is tough. Does it show? Does it show?” she said, moving her head from side to side to show her coiffure, her smile brightened by fuchsia-tinted lips.
When told about how she always looked fresh, Morales gladly took the compliment.
“Thank you. You can say that again, because it’s true,” she said with a hearty laugh.
The 74-year-old Morales has been known to come to work always well put together, not a strand of hair out of place.
Morales calls herself a “masochist” for taking on the hectic, stressful and risky job, but the former Supreme Court magistrate, appointed to the anticorruption post in 2011, knows how to spend her limited downtime well.
“I am a bathroom soprano,” she said of her singing.
She later sang a few lines of the 1902 operetta piece “The Glow Worm,” which she plays on the piano, along with Beethoven’s “Für Elise.”
“Sometimes I play the piano, but I can’t play the whole piece … I have a grand piano and one upright piano, but don’t think I’m bragging. You asked,” she said in jest.
But among the most important on her de-stress schedule is her “apostolate work”—taking care of her two apo (grandchildren).
“I do apostolate work. My apos are with me. They break the stress attendant to my work,” said Morales, warming up in an interview with the Inquirer.
Morales has two grandchildren—one 4 and one still a baby—from her late son Umberto (the youngest of two), who had passed away in October. She has kept details of his death private, but made a passing reference to him in the interview.
“My son just passed away last October. Since then, they (grandchildren) have been staying in their condo at daytime, then there are times they come home to me,” she said, half-smiling.
Spoiled but overruled
Being a doting lola, could she ever object to her grandchildren’s wishes and whims?
“I spoil my grandchildren. But sometimes I overrule them because you can’t overdo spoiling them,” she said.
That she is able to relax after office hours is a necessity for Morales, whose tasks as the Ombudsman—the official who must bring to justice the government’s corrupt lot—has limited options on how to spend her little free time.
Holding such a sensitive post requires Morales to always be watched by security men, and so she has taken it upon herself to make sure that even her constant chaperones get a break.
“I never go out without security. I seldom join my family when they eat out because I take a pity at my security. They also need to rest,” Morales said.
Even while at home, she is always on guard. It became an imperative after the gravest threat she had to face back in May 2012, when a package containing a grenade was left near her Muntinlupa home.
The incident happened in the wake of Morales’ testimony on the dollar accounts of the now ousted Chief Justice Renato Corona. The chief justice was convicted by the impeachment court of betrayal of public trust and committing culpable violation of the Constitution after he was found to have underdeclared his assets.
“My house guards did not see because they both left to eat. Since then, that has changed. One of them has to stay outside across the road … And I raised the fence because the military said I should. Some friends who come over don’t recognize my house anymore,” said Morales in an interview in her office.
Asked if she was currently facing any security risk, Morales again let out an unexpected quip and told the Inquirer with a laugh: “I think you’re the only security risk to come here today.”
A tedious and devoted worker, Morales spends at least 12 hours at work every day, arriving at her Quezon City office as early as 6:30 a.m., ahead of most everyone. She keeps the buzz even while staying away from snacking and coffee, following her doctor’s advise to guard against acid reflux.
She spends hours upon hours at her “war room,” a working area adjacent to her main office, where piles upon piles of case files from around the country await her assessment and signature.
The official started cultivating this go-getter work ethic from the beginning of her career in the judiciary in 1983, when she was appointed a Regional Trial Court (RTC) judge in Pili, Camarines Sur province.
Following 12 years at the Department of Justice, the Paoay, Ilocos Norte native found herself working at a courthouse in the middle of a farmland, with carabaos and rice fields as the view from her bench.
“I reported there very early. Sometimes I would wear casual clothes and take a tricycle. I’d be met by the guards there who would tell me, ‘The courthouse is still closed,’” Morales said.
“And then the sheriff would come running to fetch me and would tell the guard, ‘She is a judge.’ The guard would, of course, be apologetic,” Morales said.
She stayed in Pili for three years and four months before she was transferred to the Pasay RTC.
There, she also had early-bird stories, including that time when her car was flagged by an enforcer on her way to court, accosting her “without any violation.”
“Sometimes I want to keep my official title to myself. But when I was accosted, I told the officer ‘I will be late in court,’” said Morales, taking on her signature stoic mien.
“The enforcer asked, ‘What are you?’ I said, ‘I am a judge.’ ‘And your name?’ ‘Morales.’ Then the officer told me: ‘I am also a Morales. You may go.’ It’s like it’s because of the family name that he let me go,” said the Ombudsman.
It’s as if every day, Morales was out to prove wrong detractors who had tried to dissuade her from her current post on account of her age.
“[I was] pissed off,” Morales said of those who did not believe she could handle the taxing job as Ombudsman.
“Many said I was not suited for the job anymore, that I was old, that I won’t be able to handle it anymore, that someone younger would be better for the job,” she said in rapid succession.
She recalled how her interviewers at the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), the body tasked to draw up a short list for selections for prime posts at the Office of the Ombudsman, even remarked that becoming Ombudsman might be a demotion for an associate justice.
At the time of her nomination, Morales had just completed nearly nine years as associate justice of the Supreme Court.
“You could see that there was a concerted effort to discourage me. But perhaps, with this stuff that I’m made of, the more you try to discourage me—if I think that destiny beckons you, they can’t attack you because of old age—I will accept the challenge,” said Morales, always unfazed.
Filipinos may get too “rank-conscious,” Morales said.
“In our culture in the Philippines, if you are a government official, you are the guest of honor, guest speaker, ninong (godfather), ninang (godmother), that if you accept a position as a government official, you are high in the hierarchy. But there is no such thing as protocol as far as I’m concerned,” Morales said.
“When they asked me [at the JBC] why I wanted to become Ombudsman when I had already served as justice, I said, ‘Let’s not talk about ranking. It’s what you can contribute to the country. It’s what you can do to help solve the problems of the country that matters,’” she said.
In July 2011, President Aquino appointed her as Ombudsman. The appointment came a year after the just elected leader chose her, instead of Corona, as the magistrate to administer the oath on him as President.
The President’s choice was in protest to former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s eleventh hour appointment of Corona—a sentiment apparently shared by Morales, who was the lone dissenter in the Supreme Court ruling that upheld the late appointment.
“When people asked why I was selected by P-Noy, I said it’s because he held the same position about the GMA appointment. And then they said, ‘That’s all?’ I said, ‘Maybe I look like Shalani (Soledad, now Romulo),’” said Morales, laughing in a raised pitch as she made reference to one of the President’s former loves.
Prettier than Angel
When teased that she looked more like actress Angel Locsin in her younger days, Morales had none of it.
“My God, I was prettier than Locsin. What do you say? I am just making you laugh,” she said, herself almost unable to contain the laughter.
Does she ever approach the man who appointed her when they happen to be in the same room during official functions or social events?
“Para que (for what)? You will be giving a wrong impression that you’re ingratiating yourself to the President, which is not proper,” Morales said.
Under Morales, the Office of the Ombudsman posted a 75-percent conviction rate in 2015, with 81 out of 108 decided cases leading to penalties for officials tagged.
She appealed to the public for patience over cases that the Ombudsman is prosecuting before the courts, most prominently those that stemmed from the P10-billion Priority Development Assistance Fund scam.
Now five years into a stressful seven-year posting, Morales said she has “no regrets at all.”
“If you are able to do your job in accord with what you think is right, right or wrong, you are happy,” Morales said.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.