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Checks and balances in public accountability

opinion / Columnists
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With Due Respect

Checks and balances in public accountability

The 1935 Constitution allocated the three great powers of the government—to make laws, to execute them, and to interpret them—to Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court (and other courts), respectively.

Checks and balances. Using the lessons learned from the martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the framers of the 1987 Constitution improved this tripartite system of checks and balances by limiting the powers of the president, strengthening those of Congress and the Supreme Court, and institutionalizing three independent commissions (on elections, on audit, and on civil service).

Equally significant, the 1987 Charter included a new provision, “Accountability of Public Officers,” which commands: “Public officers and employees must at all times be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency, act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives.”

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Congress’ role. It prescribed two ways of exacting accountability. The first is the congressional power to impeach and oust our top officials — president, vice president, Supreme Court justices, members of the three constitutional commissions, and ombudsman — and to disqualify them perpetually from holding public office for “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.”

The Constitution gave the House of Representatives “the exclusive power to initiate all cases of impeachment” and the Senate “the sole power to try and decide” such cases.

The ease of obtaining an indictment via one-third vote of all House members is checked and balanced by the difficulty of getting a conviction via two-thirds vote (16) of all senators.

Congress’ impeachment power is neither checked nor balanced by any other government agency. It is subject only to reason and equity, and ultimately to the people’s will expressed in traditional media (TV, radio and print), social media, opinion polls and periodic elections.

OMB’s role. The second way of exacting accountability is through the “independent Office of the Ombudsman (OMB).” The Constitution grants the OMB vast powers and duties, among them to “investigate on its own, or on complaint by any person, any act or omission of any public official, employee, office or agency, when such act or omission appears to be illegal, unjust, improper, or inefficient.”

Moreover, the Ombudsman Act of 1989 (Republic Act No. 6770) empowers the OMB “to investigate any serious misconduct in office allegedly committed by officials removable by impeachment, for the purpose of filing a verified complaint for impeachment, if warranted” in the House of Representatives.

In addition, Sec. 15 of RA 6770 mandates the OMB “to investigate and initiate the proper action for the recovery of ill-gotten and/or unexplained wealth … and the prosecution of the parties involved therein,” and “to give priority to complaints filed against high ranking government officials…”

In sum, the OMB’s accountability duty includes the investigation of impeachable officials for the purpose of (1) recommending, if warranted, the initiation of impeachment; (2) filing civil cases for the recovery of ill-gotten wealth; and/or (3) filing criminal indictments for violation of antigraft and other penal statutes after the impeachable officials shall have served their terms.

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The OMB is also authorized to investigate and file criminal, civil, or administrative cases against members of Congress and the Cabinet. No wonder every ombudsman is under fire from these high officials.

Powerful as it may be, the OMB is checked by the judiciary, principally by the Sandiganbayan and the Supreme Court which can reverse or modify the actions and cases it initiates.

The ombudsman (and her or his overall deputy) can also be impeached by the House and ousted by the Senate, and once ousted, can be sued criminally and civilly, like the other impeachable officials.

With this info, I hope readers can wisely evaluate the forthcoming impeachment proceeding against the Ombudsman: whether it is a sincere effort to uphold accountability or a mere ploy to extract political vendetta.

Comments to chiefjusticepanganiban@hotmail.com

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TAGS: 1935 Constitution, 1987 Constitution, artemio v. panganiban, checks and balances, With Due Respect
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