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Editorial

Deeply worrying

/ 05:36 AM August 10, 2018

The Office of the Ombudsman is of such importance it is only one of two government institutions that the Constitution describes with a special phrase.

In Article XI, Section 12, we read: “The Ombudsman and his Deputies, as protectors of the people, shall act promptly on complaints…” That is an echo of the much more familiar (and controversial) phrase we find in Article II, Section 3, which reads in part: “The Armed Forces of the Philippines is the protector of the people and the State.”

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The philosophy behind this principle of protection must be understood as having a dual, complementary nature. The military protects the people from threats arising from outside the government: invaders, insurgents, putschists. The Ombudsman and his Deputies protect the people from threats arising from within government: grafters, scammers, plunderers.

That is why the Ombudsman enjoys a range of powers that perhaps comes second only to the President’s own vast panoply. He needs all of those in his position as protector of the people. The Ombudsman is also granted, like a few other high constitutional offices, complete institutional independence: fiscal autonomy; presidential appointments without need for legislative confirmation; removability only through impeachment; plus a mandate that extends to the entire scope of government: “public officials or employees of the Government, or any subdivision, agency or instrumentality thereof, including government-owned or controlled corporations.”

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It is not only disappointing, then, but deeply worrying, when an Ombudsman fails to defend the independence and integrity of his office.

The order issued by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea dismissing Overall Deputy Ombudsman Melchor Arthur Carandang is an unwarranted encroachment into the Ombudsman’s duties and responsibilities.

In the first place, the Supreme Court has already ruled that the Executive department has no jurisdiction over the Ombudsman and his Deputies. Secondly, the previous Ombudsman, Justice Conchita Carpio Morales, refused to heed an earlier order, also issued by the Palace, suspending Carandang for 90 days. Not least, the order of dismissal was issued only after Morales’ retirement had taken effect; it was deliberately timed, released during the week when the new Ombudsman, Justice Samuel Martires, had not yet taken his oath.

During that week, Martires already gave a safe, studiously neutral answer to repeated questions about the order of dismissal. He said he had not yet read the decision or assumed his new office.

Once he did, however, he started issuing statements favoring the presidential palace’s position rather than that of the office he now heads. “I cannot take the law into my hands. I cannot invoke this decision of the Supreme Court because I am not the respondent in this case. The respondent in this case is the Overall Deputy Ombudsman Carandang.”

This is technically true, but it is also mind-numbingly beside the point. The point is that Carandang is being taken to task for doing something that was well within his set of duties and responsibilities. The least Martires could do is defend his institution.

He also said: “It is not the Office of the Ombudsman who should invoke the decision. It should be Carandang. Otherwise, I would be lawyering for Carandang.” Another exceedingly strange statement, considering that it was the prerogatives of the Ombudsman as an office and an institution that the Supreme Court upheld — the very reason Morales refused to honor Malacañang’s suspension order.

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The polite language was for the benefit of the congressmen asking questions. But to reporters asking about the Carandang case, Martires had a simpler, even more dismaying answer: “No comment, huwag niyo akong ipitin diyan (don’t put me in a bind).”

He sounds like a lowly government employee, instead of the country’s chief graft buster and constitutionally designated protector of the people.

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TAGS: Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Melchor Arthur Carandang, ombudsman
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