Ombudsman at Kapihan sa Diamond
OBJECTIVE OBSERVERS believe that Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez is a victim of collateral damage. It was her closeness to the former first family, especially to Mike Arroyo who was her classmate, that made her a target for impeachment. People who couldn’t get at the hated GMA and her family are doing the next best thing: get at their friends and allies. And Gutierrez is as close to them as anybody can get.
On the other hand, it can be said that Gutierrez’s problems are all her fault. Corruption has long been the plague of the Philippines, to curb which the Office of the Ombudsman was created. The Ombudsman was supposed to be the point of the lance of the knight in shining armor who would slay the dragon of corruption.
Alas, the people were disappointed. There were so many sensational corruption cases before and during the Arroyo administration, so many cases were filed with the Office of the Ombudsman but Gutierrez was too slow in acting on them. Cases languished in the her office for many years. Just one example: the case of Code NGO which happened in 2001 is still pending in the Office of the Ombudsman. The cases for which Gutierrez is being impeached, beginning with the “Hello, Garci” tape, are all gathering cobwebs in her office. Can you blame the people for being impatient and disappointed?
The plea bargain with Carlos Garcia, the AFP comptroller who was able to amass a P303-million loot and whose children were caught trying to smuggle currency into the United States, was the last straw. The prosecutors agreed to a plea of guilty for bribery and money laundering and returning P150 million of his ill-gotten wealth in exchange for the dropping of the plunder case against him, as a result of which he is now free on bail. That was what broke the camel’s back and resulted in the Senate investigation and the filing of the impeachment case against Gutierrez in the House of Representatives.
Not my fault, Merci told the Kapihan sa Manila at the Diamond Hotel, where she was the guest last Monday together with Batangas Rep. Hermilando Mandanas. “Don’t blame me,” she repeated. “There are just too many cases in the Office of the Ombudsman and we can barely keep our heads above the water.” She said about 10,000 cases are filed with her office every year.
Gutierrez said they have to look for evidence against the accused to be able to successfully prosecute the cases. “We cannot just file and file cases without evidence,” she said. “They will just be dismissed by the courts.”
Why, how many investigators and prosecutors do you have? she was asked.
“About 300,” was her answer.
That’s not enough?
“Most of them are new lawyers, with small salaries. The good ones prefer to work for the law firms where the pay is much bigger.”
Some of your prosecutors appear like defense lawyers for the accused.
“Hindi naman,” Merci defended her prosecutors. “They work very hard. But many people file charges without giving us any evidence. So what can we do?
Aren’t you supposed to follow the leads, investigate, and gather the evidence?
“Yes, but we can only do so much.”
In the plunder case against Garcia, she explained, “the charges say he was bribed by AFP suppliers and contractors. But we cannot find any contractor or supplier who would testify that they bribed Garcia. So rather than lose the case entirely, the prosecutors opted to settle for conviction for the lesser offenses of bribery and money laundering and for recovering whatever could be recovered of the assets.”
What many people do not know is that Garcia has already been convicted for “unexplained wealth,” Gutierrez said. His assets are way beyond his legitimate income.
So why is he still out of prison?
“Don’t forget that he has already served seven years in detention,” she replied.
And that’s it? He’s now free as a bird?
Gutierrez turned the tables on the public for the corruption plaguing the nation. “There are corrupt public officials because there are people bribing them,” she said. “There will be no corrupt public officials if there are no corrupters.”
She asked the public not to tempt public officials and to report what they know of cases of bribery.
Mandanas, chairman of the House ways and means committee, agreed. He appealed for the public’s help and cooperation in the fight against corruption.
His committee, Mandanas said, is saddled with the job of looking for funds to pay for what is lost to corruption. The appropriations committee just keeps on appropriating funds without thinking where to get the money, he said. “There are innumerable projects that cannot be implemented due to lack of funds.”
“One reason is that much money is lost to the pork barrel of legislators,” one reporter quipped.
Naturally, the congressman defended the pork barrel system even if he has to work harder to raise funds for it. One of his proposals is to raise the excise taxes on cigarettes. The so-called “sin taxes,”—taxes on cigarettes and alcoholic beverages—are a favorite of legislators.
Aren’t cigarettes already heavily taxed?
Not ours, compared to those of other countries, Mandanas replied. There is a quirk in our law that says that old brands of cigarettes cannot be taxed higher even if it is being sold at a higher price. That provision should be amended, he said.
Back to the ombudsman. Does she regret being the batch mate of Mike Arroyo?
“Not at all,” she replied. “Not his fault or my fault.”
At any rate, Gutierrez was in fighting form at the Kapihan. She doesn’t think the House has enough votes to impeach her and she believes the senators would be fair in judging her if the impeachment case reaches the Senate.
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