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Editorial

Why the attack on transparency?

/ 05:07 AM September 19, 2020

If utilized properly, the requirement for every government official or employee to fill out and submit a “Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth,” better known as a SALN, is a powerful tool for government and the public to check abuse of one’s office or theft of public funds.

Embedded in the 1987 Constitution, the requirement for a SALN covers all government employees who each must submit the notarized document upon assuming office and then every year thereafter. It has served as a useful tool for the Commission on Audit, the Civil Service Commission, the Office of the Ombudsman, other politicians, and members of the public, including (and especially) the media to monitor the growth (or diminishment) of an official’s personal wealth while in office.

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Simple as it may sound, any increase in the net worth of a government official during his or her term of office is a potential red flag for investigators. Unexplained growth in assets and net worth from year to year could trigger probes into the source of such income, compared to one’s official salary and allowances, or assets gained before one joined government.

Their SALNs were used to oust the late former chief justice Renato Corona as well as his successor, Maria Lourdes Sereno. Impeachment proceedings against former president Joseph Estrada hinged, in part, on discrepancies between his SALN and his lifestyle and personal wealth. And to this day, calculations and comparisons between the official salaries of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda and their enormous wealth are used by historians, critics, and even the Supreme Court to demonstrate the enormity of the plunder that supported their conjugal rule.

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Thanks but no thanks, however, to Ombudsman Samuel Martires, himself a former associate justice of the Supreme Court, the efficacy of the SALN as a check on official abuse is about to end.

Just this week, the Office of the Ombudsman made public new guidelines on access to and use of the SALNs of public officials. Under the new rules, access to SALNs may only be availed by the following personalities: the official involved or a duly authorized representative, bearers of court orders in relation to pending cases, and the Office of the Ombudsman’s Field Investigation Office for the purpose of conducting a fact-finding investigation.

Of note is the absence of the media, as representative of the general public, from the list of those entitled to request for copies of SALNs. The Ombudsman’s order effectively shuts the door to public scrutiny of the finances of public officials. Such a terrible irony given that the Office of the Ombudsman was created precisely to ferret out secret or unexplained wealth among government officials in preparation for submission of cases before the Sandiganbayan.

The designation of a SALN as a public document is precisely to make it available for public scrutiny. To shroud it in unprecedented secrecy (courtesy of the principal anti-corruption office no less) is to undermine its very purpose and thwart the Constitution’s mandate for a government of transparency and accountability.

People are aware, too, of the generally obsequious attitude of the courts toward high-ranking officials, as well as the wariness of the Ombudsman’s field officers to be linked in any way to the leak of official documents.

What is the root of the Ombudsman’s recent order? It appears to have stemmed from the refusal of President Duterte and officials around him to release his SALNs for the past two years. Instead of reminding Malacañang of the President’s SALN obligation, the Ombudsman’s memorandum could only bolster the Palace’s defiance of not just the Constitution but also of the principle and practice of transparency that previous administrations had adhered to.

Indeed, in yet another instance of defying the principles of transparency, even such a simple act as the disclosure of the appointment of a government official is now left to the discretion of the appointee. According to a Rappler report, Malacañang has for months now refused to release announcements of the names of new appointees.

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Why is this alarming? “The appointments of government officials are critical decisions made by the President which impact the public,” the report noted. “For instance, the Chief Executive appoints Supreme Court justices, police and military chiefs, heads of regulatory agencies, and department heads. Transparency on presidential appointees allows the public to scrutinize these new government officials and also voice their concerns regarding these appointees.”

What is the motive for keeping the Filipino people in the dark about what this government is doing, and how honest its people are? What is the Duterte administration so determined to hide from the public’s eyes?

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TAGS: ombudsman, Samuel Martires, Statement of Assets Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN), transparency
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