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Editorial

Lifestyle check on officials

/ 04:08 AM January 18, 2021

In January 2016, then presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte promised to eradicate corruption in the first six months of his term once elected. Disappointingly, nearly five years into his six-year term, his administration appears to have hardly made a dent on the rampant corruption that has plagued the country for decades.

Last year, the President again promised to spend the remaining two years — actually about a year and a half now — of his term to remove as many dishonest people as he can from government. In an address to the nation in November, Mr. Duterte said that many government employees would be dismissed and criminal charges filed against them for corruption before 2020 ended. “The next round will be by December,” he said. “Many will lose their jobs. Many will be separated from the government. Many will face prosecution, and many will go to jail.” However, December passed without much happening on this front.

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Still, credit must be due for whatever movement did happen as 2020 came to a close. After creating a task force last August to investigate alleged anomalies involving the state-run Philippine Health Insurance Corp., eight of its officials and employees were slapped with a six-month preventive suspension order without pay for alleged anomalous cash advances reaching P2.7 billion. Five others from the Department of Health were given similar orders for gross neglect of duty. Also last month, more than 40 immigration personnel were given a six-month preventive suspension order after being linked to the multibillion-peso “pastillas” bribery scheme probed in Congress.

The task force led by the Department of Justice was likewise given expanded authority to investigate all government agencies where corruption is believed to be prevalent. Among these are the Department of Public Works and Highways, Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), and Bureau of Customs (BOC).

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Given until June 30, 2022, the last day of President Duterte’s term, to eradicate corruption in government, the task force faces an impossible task. There is no comprehensive and organized plan on how to go about it, only bits and pieces made up of individual projects of agencies, with some bound to fail like the e-complaint portal of the BIR. How can a legitimate complainant convey without fear of retaliation what he or she knows about corruption involving BIR employees, for instance, if the agency requires that person to first disclose his or her name, address, email, and phone numbers in the complaint form online?

Last week, the Department of Finance (DOF) unveiled its own anti-corruption initiative with the launch of the “Sumbong Website” on its official webpage. The project enjoins citizens to report cases of possible anomalies in the department and all the agencies it supervises, which include the BIR and BOC. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III said informants may submit evidence showing properties or lifestyles grossly disproportionate to officials’ pay levels.

The law is clear that wealth and assets accumulated beyond an official’s lawful income is presumed to be ill-gotten. Despite this, many corrupt officials are unabashed about displaying their dubious wealth by buying grand houses and expensive vehicles, and living luxurious lifestyles. While this is obvious throughout the country, not one agency has launched a serious, sustained attempt to pursue lifestyle checks on officials suspected of stealing public funds. Frustratingly, any effort in this regard has been complicated by the steady drift of the Duterte administration away from the culture of transparency and open governance it had promised at the outset. Malacañang has refused to release the President’s statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN), and the Ombudsman, following suit, has instituted new rules that make it more difficult to obtain the SALNs of government officials.

So how will the public scrutinize cases such as the reported travails of some regional district officers of the BIR who have ended up victims of kidnap-for-ransom gangs? The victims were forced to fork out hundreds of millions of pesos, yet they could not file police complaints because they would have to explain where they got the huge amounts of money handed over to the kidnappers. And these cases involve lower-level officials; the largesse at the top is way more enormous. Worse, the most corrupt ones also become the most powerful and the most tenacious to stay in office.

If the DOF is serious about its anti-corruption project and gives it both the muscle and teeth it needs to succeed, then it may help make some headway in the protracted fight against dishonest public officials. The challenge for the department is to prove that this is not just a pro-forma gesture meant to be ticked off as a token contribution to the President’s late-in-the-day rally against corruption in his own government.

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TAGS: Corrupt officials, Editorial, lifestyle check
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