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The Ombudsman’s ‘debut’

It was thrilling, to say the least, watching Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales trading barbs and witticisms with former Supreme Court justice and Chief Justice Renato Corona’s lead defense counsel Serafin Cuevas.

Much too rarely are we treated to a personal glimpse of Supreme Court justices, as we had of Morales before her retirement and her appointment as Ombudsman. In fact, it is only in his role as Corona’s lawyer that we got acquainted with Cuevas, who awed followers of the impeachment trial with his legal expertise and the way he dominated the proceedings, making mincemeat of the House prosecutors. But as the Inquirer headline goes: he found his match in Morales.

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The Ombudsman was poised, assured, unflappable and capable of blocking and deflecting Cuevas’ attempts to trip her up or downplay her testimony. Indeed, from this casual viewer’s point of view, Cuevas appeared uncharacteristically flustered, if not seemingly unprepared when he tangled with the former justice.

Many times, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile had to intervene when the exchange between the two former justices got too heated, or focused on legal interpretations, especially on the power of the ombudsman to investigate public officials.

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Observers say Morales’ performance on the stand was “vintage Carpio Morales,” with one lawyer who had argued cases before the Supreme Court while she was on the bench warning that one didn’t face her “unprepared.”

Indeed, that was what the defense panel appeared to be before the testimony of the Ombudsman. Cuevas repeatedly tried to stop her from proceeding with a PowerPoint presentation detailing the complex trail of deposits and withdrawals concerning Corona’s dollar accounts. And it was only with the unanimous vote of the senator-judges that she was able to proceed with her account. I have little doubt that the Ombudsman’s assured performance on the stand served to convince the senators that she knew what she was talking about and had sufficient proof to back up her allegations.

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Also revealed in Monday’s hearing was how powerful the office of the Ombudsman is—or can be—as envisioned by its creators.

Listening to Enrile read passages from the Constitution creating the Office of the Ombudsman, one felt awed by the powers vested on this office to investigate officials and stop corruption and malfeasance in their tracks.  But along with awe came dismay that previous holders of the position allowed politics and self-interest to emasculate their powers, defanging themselves and allowing corrupt officials to make a mockery of the institution.

Seeing Morales in action, one is suddenly hopeful that the Office of the Ombudsman, as originally envisioned, would bring the light of truth and investigative and prosecutorial zeal to the fight against corruption. A fight, we might add, that everybody says is necessary and urgent, but which seems to shirk from, or go soft on, when it begins to hurt friends or allies.

Why, for example, are so many now decrying President Aquino’s continuing focus against misbehaving officials, saying this “distracts” from his equally urgent duty to spur development? Read any public opinion poll of the last few years and “corruption” is identified as the No. 1 problem people say they want tackled. Well, with an ombudsman like Morales in office, it seems the anticorruption drive will be pursued with real vigor this time.

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Another the tangled web of dollar transactions that Chief Justice Corona desperately sought to keep under wraps was the work of a team—of women.

Ombudsman Morales said she sought the help of both COA (Commission on Audit) Chair Grace Pulido Tan and Commissioner Heidi Mendoza in conducting “forensic accounting” on the transactions, which cover multiple banks, multiple accounts, and withdrawals and deposits that occurred in, uhm, “interesting times.”

That they would work together on this endeavor is really no surprise since the Office of the Ombudsman and the COA have signed a memorandum of agreement forming a joint team to investigate and prosecute cases arising out of COA fraud reports. So the two bodies would already have a track record of working together.

I am impressed because the three women all have sterling records in public service, and brought their apparent skill and meticulousness to the task of revealing the full extent of Corona’s “hidden wealth,” revealing a passion for full disclosure and pursuit of transparency even—or especially—in the highest levels of public office.

It is not enough that one have the knowledge and skills needed to perform one’s job. To serve the public to the full extent of one’s vocation, one also needs a passion for public service, a heartfelt belief in the meaning of one’s employment in government, and zeal in performing the job to the full extent of one’s capabilities, and regardless of the status of those who stand to get hurt from the performance of one’s duties.

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It was fortunate that the public was given this chance to get to know the Ombudsman “up close and personal,” so to speak.  Through her testimony, we all had the chance to appreciate how articulate and credible she is, and how she brought gravitas to the often rambunctious and rambling proceedings of the impeachment trial. Maybe we should thank Corona’s defense team for orchestrating Morales’ “debut” in the public eye. And aver that for someone of her stature and record, it seems absurd that she would fall in line with the allegations of the defense that her testimony is part and parcel of a conspiracy to pin the Chief Justice for crimes of which he is apparently guilty.

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TAGS: Anti-Money Laundering Council, conchita carpio-morales, Corona dollar accounts, corona impeachment, judiciary, ombudsman, politics, Renato corona, Senate, Supreme Court
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