Moment of accountability
The Ombudsman’s recent indictment of former President Benigno Simeon Aquino III over the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) took many by surprise.
The antigraft body’s latest move reversed its 2017 decision clearing Aquino of charges over the alleged illegal implementation in 2011, 2012 and 2013 of the DAP, a funding mechanism the Aquino administration said was meant to pump-prime the economy through the interagency transfer of funds, so that money can be made available for public projects.
In a ruling released on June 20, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales said she “found probable cause” to charge Aquino with usurpation of legislative powers for issuing National Budget Circular No. 541, which authorized the release of P72 billion in unobligated allotments from various government offices.
That manner of sourcing funds was among the DAP provisions the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in 2014. While it recognized “the encouraging effects of the DAP on the country’s economy and acknowledged its laudable purposes,” the Court said the president cannot just approve the use of savings in one item of the budget to cover the deficit in another item.
Aside from Aquino, the Ombudsman also found former budget secretary Florencio Abad liable. “The evidence on record shows that an exchange of memoranda between Aquino and Abad precipitated the issuance of NBC 541,” the Ombudsman’s resolution said.
Another Aquino official, former transportation secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya, has been indicted for graft along with 16 others. Abaya allegedly gave “unwarranted benefits, advantage and preference” when the maintenance contract of the Metro Rail Transit Line 3 (MRT3) was awarded to Busan Universal Rail Inc.
“Abaya deliberately ignored applicable laws, rules and regulations, and standard operating procedures, falling short of, or disregarding, the required competence expected of him in the performance of his official functions… In sum, the Busan JV was not technically, legally and financially capable to undertake the MRT3 long-term maintenance contract,” the Ombudsman’s consolidated resolution said about the P4.25 billion deal.
Aquino’s indictment and that of his allies may come across as pure harassment to his supporters, or a mere slap on the wrist to Malacañang officials and some militant groups. But it is also—in these fiercely polarized times—proof that it is still possible for an institution to uphold and stand firm on the rules.
“I am the Ombudsman,” the 77-year-old Morales thundered in response to criticisms that she had gone soft on Aquino by dismissing the more serious complaints of graft and technical malversation levied against him. “I know what I’m doing. This is my job, after all.”
Her history appears to corroborate that. Morales remained as steadfast and consistent when she exonerated former president and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the P728-million fertilizer fund scam—not a popular ruling, for sure, but one that proved her refusal to pander, and her confidence to ignore public expectations in lieu of the evidence before her.
Morales is retiring in July. She leaves behind several indictments that Aquino and his other officials would be wise to consider as an opportunity to clear their names. Their moment of accountability highlights the larger point that it does not matter how popular one’s term is or was, how pure the intention, how well-meaning the action. Government officials must be held accountable for their every move simply because they represent, and must work for, the public interest.
And, given this country’s perennially unfinished business with wrongdoing and its extremely short memory (the Marcos resurrection, Estrada’s pardon and reelection, Arroyo and the “Hello, Garci” scandal), that system of accountability must only be further strengthened and extended to everyone in government, whether of the previous or current dispensations, as long as there is wrongdoing to be addressed.
No one lasts in power forever. The hour of reckoning will come for everyone.
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