What inspires the Ombudsman
A doting grandma explaining to her grandchildren why she is still hard at work despite breaching the age of retirement was the “peg” adopted by Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales when she received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service last Wednesday.
“Allow me to break tradition by reading a letter to my grandchildren who call me ‘Grand C,’” Morales said, begging the indulgence of the worthies present at the award ceremony. Addressing her grandchildren Enyo and CC, Morales attempted to explain “why and how I continue to work.” The answer, her secret, she said, is that “I draw inspiration and energy from you. I continue working because I want to secure a just and honest society for you and for every Filipino child.” Millions of children, she told the youngsters, are “being robbed of a bright future by those consumed with greed and lust for power.”
Indeed, the Ombudsman, the only Filipino among this year’s six laureates of what is known as “Asia’s Nobel Prize,” was recognized for her “moral courage and commitment to justice in taking head-on one of the most intractable problems of the Philippines; promoting by her example of incorruptibility, diligence, vision and leadership the highest ethical standards in public service.”
And if her dedication to the work of investigating and indicting government officials and their cohorts accused of corruption and abuse of their positions is motivated by an eye toward the future, a future in which her grandchildren are to lead exemplary lives, then so much the better.
For this means that the spirit that moves her and gives her the courage to move against “sacred cows” comes from a place not likely to be influenced by the political winds or the wishes of patrons. It can only come from a deep personal grounding in the ethical demands of public service, and a fierce independence of mind and shining personal courage.
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Now 75 years old, Morales finds herself facing down threats from a growing number of cowardly opponents. In an interview with a wire agency, the Ombudsman recounted how she had to raise the walls of a fence surrounding her house after a grenade with her initials carved into it was discovered just outside her property in 2012. “I’m not scared,” she told the reporter, who then described how even as she declared this, Morales’ eyes were “flashing as she thumped her hand on the desk in her office.”
People should recall that almost from the outset, the Office of the Ombudsman was often dismissed as an inutile agency or, worse, a tool for the powerful to go after their critics. Many observers slammed the performance of the office, going after only the small fry of the bureaucracy for minor infractions. Very rarely, if at all, did her predecessors dare to take on more senior officials. This even if the accused were found to have committed more serious breaches, including pocketing millions of pesos in state funds. Indeed, it was often said then that the bigger the loot, the easier it was to evade prosecution.
But all that changed when Morales took over as Ombudsman in 2011, appointed by P-Noy to whom she administered the oath of office. From the beginning, it was obvious that the Ombudsman was determined to go after even the biggies in government service, indicting former president and recently-freed Congresswoman Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and ordering the detention of then Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Bong Revilla and Juan Ponce Enrile when they were embroiled in the net of corruption said to be organized by Janet Lim Napoles. Morales also testified at the impeachment hearings of then Chief Justice Renato Corona, since deceased, and succeeded in ousting then Makati Mayor Junjun Binay from office, even as she continues to pursue former vice president Jojo Binay.
It’s no surprise that from 2011 to 2015, Morales raised the conviction rate of the cases her office handed over to the Sandiganbayan from 33.3 percent to 74.5 percent.
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Her biggest frustration, Morales told an interviewer, was when the Supreme Court freed Arroyo and, before that, when it allowed the release of Enrile from hospital detention on “humanitarian grounds.”
She noted how the two had pleaded ill health for years to avoid having to stay in more spartan prison cells, but observed that “after you are free… you swagger!”
This is all of a piece with the image Morales exuded while she was testifying at the Senate impeachment court against Corona, under whom she served in the Supreme Court. She was poised and self-possessed, but also simmering with righteous indignation and unflappable in her assertions. Indeed, she could be an intimidating presence in any courtroom and against even powerful officials.
Lately, the Ombudsman has had what can best be described as a “testy” relationship with President Duterte, under whose administration she will serve until 2018. But consistent with her approach to the work of the agency she supervises, Morales insists: “We do not take orders from anyone. We are independent. Period.”
So to Enyo and CC, let me say that not only should you be proud of your lola who is leaving you with a name you should be proud of and a reputation that would burnish any family tree. You should also, in turn, learning from her example, especially the courage she has displayed in serving the government, strive to lead upright and exemplary lives and make her proud. We all are proud of her, and wish there were more of her kind in government service.
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