Who is he protecting?

Who is Ombudsman Samuel Martires trying to protect? This is the question provoked by his recent announcement that he would no longer allow the lifestyle check of public officials as a means of establishing culpability in graft and plunder cases.

Since he was appointed to his post by President Duterte in July 2018, Martires has stopped lifestyle checks, citing the “vague” provisions of Republic Act No. 6713, also known as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, which requires such persons to “lead modest lives appropriate to their positions and income.”

Everything is subjective, Martires declared, adding that government officials with “distorted values or priorities” and living beyond their means may not necessarily be committing a corrupt act. “Anong pakialam natin sa buhay ng may buhay kung hindi naman nagnanakaw?” he demanded to know at a House hearing on Tuesday: What is our business with anyone’s life if that person is not a thief? Who are we to judge?

Perhaps the man forgets that it is precisely the function of his office to do just that—to exact accountability from and impose correct behavior on public servants playing fast and loose with taxpayer money.

Additionally, public access to the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of ranking government officials now depends on their consent, per the Ombudsman’s instruction. The document has been “weaponized” to bring down some politicians, he claimed: “Saan ba gagamitin ang SALN kundi para siraan ang isang kawani o opisyal ng pamahalaan?” He also said the document was not needed to prove “undue injury, undue advantage, even plunder.”

The ban on lifestyle checks and the restriction of public access to ranking officials’ SALNs have predictably elicited public anger. To be sure, why keep these important documents off-limits to the public when Martires himself, then among other associate justices of the Supreme Court, used it in 2018 to oust then Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno for alleged incomplete SALN submissions?

Critics have observed that Martires spoke about doing away with lifestyle checks during House deliberations on his office’s proposed budget for 2021. It does make one wonder if he was bartering the independence of the Office of the Ombudsman for an intact share of next year’s appropriation.

Martires’ other actions have raised suspicion. Only last June, he issued Office Circular No. 13 directing his prosecutors to review cases filed at the lower courts and the Sandiganbayan to determine which could be recommended for withdrawal for, among others, lack of evidence and witnesses. His office has also filed a diminishing number of cases at the Sandiganbayan since he was named to the post. The number has dropped by 73 percent: from 739 cases filed in 2018 (a year he shared with his predecessor, Conchita Carpio Morales, before she retired) to 198 cases in 2019, and only 8 cases in January 2020. One would be led to think that—miraculously—there were fewer instances of graft and corruption in the government. But if that were so, why suggest the dissolution of his own office, as Martires did during the House hearing, saying that witnesses had refused to provide evidence and were thus blocking the progress of the cases filed?

With his apparent exhaustion and frustration with the job, the Ombudsman should quit and give way to others more qualified and more determined to do a good job. Observers have also said Martires’ personal reservations about the law did not give him the license or the authority to do away with its implementation. He should request Congress to legislate amendments to the law, but it’s his duty to enforce it, they added.

Martires should also be reminded of instances in recent political history when the SALN proved crucial in exposing the plunderers in our midst by showing gross mismatches between legitimate incomes and lifestyles of excess. Consider the Marcoses and the ill-gotten wealth that the Presidential Commission on Good Government is mandated to locate and retrieve. Consider the mind-blowing amounts that animated the Estrada presidency, and which eventually came to light. Even the PhilHealth officials caught in the maelstrom of billion-peso corruption have volunteered to undergo a lifestyle check to disprove allegations.

But Martires is seemingly intent on defanging a law intended to pinpoint graft in governance and on providing a convenient shield for those who may have something to hide. Why? Who is he protecting?