SALN and ‘blackmail’
Sen. Imee Marcos let loose a steaming mouthful on Saturday in support of Ombudsman Samuel Martires’ controversial position restricting access to the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of government officials.
“Totoo naman. Madalas nakikita natin, iniskandalo ka sa dyaryo tapos parang tine-terrorize na, wine-weaponize na itong SALN,” said the eldest daughter of deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a radio interview.
Of course, Marcos’ disdain for the SALN law and her profuse commiseration with Martires’ decision—deemed by many sectors as practically subverting the mandate of the Ombudsman’s office to promote honesty and accountability in government—has more than a touch of self-interest to it. The woman, after all, is one of the heirs to what Transparency International estimates is some $5 billion to $10 billion that the Marcos conjugal dictatorship had embezzled from Philippine coffers from 1972 to 1986 through shell corporations, real estate properties, and money in numerous offshore banks.
A simple check of the older Marcos’ SALN would readily show that his assets were ill-gotten, since the ousted President’s salary never rose above $13,500 a year, according to a May 2016 article by The Guardian. That judgment on the nature of the Marcoses’ unexplained wealth has been affirmed as well by rulings of the Supreme Court. Imee, according to a 2013 report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, was herself the beneficiary of the Sintra Trust fund in the British Virgin Islands, which she, however, did not declare in her SALN.
It is easy to understand why shady politicians consider the SALN a dreaded enemy, one that raises doubts about their integrity when the document shows a gross mismatch between their assets and legitimate income. But isn’t that precisely the intention of the law—to expose malfeasance and dishonesty with figures cited or omitted in the sworn document? Why fear it when one has nothing to hide?
The Marcos daughter parrots Martires’ beef against the SALN requirement—that it has been “weaponized” against politicians. That’s rich; Martires himself is guilty of having “weaponized” the law on SALN to oust then Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno in 2018, not even for any proven misrepresentation in the documents she presented, but only for her incomplete SALN submission.
But, really, the SALN law IS a weapon—against corruption and plunder and wrongdoing in public office. The reality of deceit and misconduct in government is such that a vast machinery of offices, agencies, and institutions emanating from the Constitution itself—the Office of the Ombudsman, the Sandiganbayan, the Commission on Audit, etc.—is in place, empowered by a raft of laws and mandates and huge budgets, to fight and contain the never-ending scourge. Upright politicians would see the SALN law and similar regulations demanding basic integrity in government as valuable tools, making their job of accounting for their conduct before the people much easier. Only those whose interests stand to be adversely exposed by the SALN would be deathly afraid of it.
That much is clear from the rest of Marcos’ remarks, in which she complained that “Lahat ng mga public officials parating tinatakot sa ganyan… ’Yung problema naman talaga ’yung nagiging instrument ’yung blackmail naman. Ibang usapan kasi kapag ganun.”
Does the woman hear herself? One is vulnerable to blackmail only when he or she has something embarrassing that needs to be kept from public view. Politicians with the straightest of records about their assets won’t have qualms disclosing such information to the public; that is simply the trade-off to their being given the privilege of occupying public office and handling taxpayer money. Crooks in government, however, would certainly find the requirement of public scrutiny not only burdensome, but a clear danger to their schemes.
“Blackmailing” powerful public officials on their SALNs is a preposterous idea—what is there to shake down if the document is truthful and accurate? If, however, the politician draws up a spurious, fraudulent declaration that can result in scandal, then she has only herself to blame for engaging in unlawful conduct in the first place.
To repeat: The SALN, and the overall Constitutional direction toward transparency and accountability in governance at all times, will come off as a nuisance, a set of inconveniences to be disregarded on the flimsiest of grounds (the “vagueness” of longstanding law, for instance), only by those in the business of trying to hoodwink the people about their affairs while in office. When Imee Marcos bleats about the unfairness and danger of the SALN law to politicians, is she saying, in effect, that people like her have something unsavory to hide that can be subject to “terrorizing” and blackmail? The public is more than eager to find out what that is.
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