Everybody loves a winner, so it’s said. Thus, it wasn’t a surprise when, in the aftermath of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s in effect winning an acquittal from the Supreme Court when it granted her petition for a “demurrer”—an objection to even presenting a defense because the evidence against her is supposedly weak—on her plunder case in the Sandiganbayan, the insta-narrative that seized the day was markedly sympathetic to the former president. The ruling was proof, so went the talk, that the charges and Arroyo’s four-year detention were indeed the product of political persecution by the Aquino administration. And, so went the talk, not only did the Aquino administration’s lawyers botch the case by presenting insufficient evidence against Arroyo, it also lassoed the Office of the Ombudsman into the operation, since it was the agency that filed the charges against the ex-president. Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, so went the talk, served as hatchet man in pursuing Arroyo on flimsy, questionable grounds.
Now this scuttlebutt would have a leg to stand on if it were supported by facts. But a review of the Office of the Ombudsman’s actions specifically vis-à-vis Arroyo belies any hint of bias or partiality against her. In 2013, Morales dismissed a plunder case filed against Arroyo and other members of her former Cabinet in connection with the sale of the Iloilo airport to Megaworld Corp. for P1.2 billion. The charge was that the officials failed to assess and collect the proper capital gains tax on the amount. In her decision, Morales said there was nothing irregular about the sale, that none of the public officials appeared to have benefited from the transaction, and that the element of ill-gotten wealth required for a complaint of plunder was not even present.
At that time, with the Aquino administration in power and Arroyo’s misdeeds fresh in the public mind, the Ombudsman’s decision was met with disapproval, and the quick yarn was that the office must have been swayed by the Arroyo camp’s considerable resources and influence. But Morales stuck to her guns, dismissing with finality the third motion for reconsideration filed against the dismissal.
The one case against Arroyo that Morales approved—the alleged diversion of Philippine Charity Sweepstake Office funds to illegal ends, each withdrawal duly approved by Arroyo according to records—was what was filed at the Sandiganbayan and that eventually reached the high court. Despite its junking, Morales has maintained that the evidence in this case is strong: over 630 documentary exhibits, transcripts of witness testimonies, and over 40 folders of evidence, for starters, “exhaustive records which reflect that the prosecution was able to prove the guilt without reasonable doubt of the accused.”
This particular defeat has spawned calls by some partisans for Morales to resign. But she has a feisty riposte: “Do I have to win all cases I filed? Do you have to fault the prosecutors if they lose cases?” The fact is that under her administration, the Office of the Ombudsman has dramatically improved its track record. The backlog of pending criminal and administrative complaints is down from 19,814 in 2011, the first year of her tenure, to 7,328 at the end of 2015. And the conviction rate has increased from 33.3 percent in 2011 to 74.5 percent by 2015.
The foundation behind the Ramon Magsaysay Award duly noted those encouraging numbers in its recent decision to choose Morales one of its six awardees for 2016—the only Filipino in the roster. Morales’ work as Ombudsman, it said, was an “example of incorruptibility, diligence, vision, and leadership—the highest ethical standards in public service.” It also noted her “moral courage and commitment to justice” in tackling official corruption, “one of the most intractable problems of the Philippines.”
It’s an award richly deserved, and none more so at this time when Morales’ landmark prosecution of the fat cats of Philippine politics—from Arroyo to former senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla—has acquired greater threat of getting undone under the auspices of a new and friendlier dispensation. The prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award should fortify Morales and her coworkers in the Office of the Ombudsman in their often-thankless, lonely and dangerous job of fighting knavery in government. Kudos, and more power.
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