Immunity from scrutiny

Posted by watchmen
October 26, 2020
Posted in OPINION

A mid-level public official was recently seen in a photograph wearing a watch that, if genuine, would be enough to buy a modest house plus change. Right there she flouts the law requiring public officials and employees to lead modest lives. 

Corruption may not be as old as prostitution, but it has been with us for a long time.

Dishonesty in public office had antedated the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos. The Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act was passed six decades ago in order to reduce opportunities for corruption in public office and to maintain a standard of honesty among government officials.

The anti-graft act of 1960 thus requires the periodic filing of a statement of assets and liabilities.

A perfunctory challenge to the validity of this requirement was filed in the Supreme Court anchored on an individual’s right to privacy enshrined in the Constitution. The petition was rejected. The measure was ruled to be consistent with the power of the State to promote morality in public service.

To deny Congress the power to impose such requirement of transparency among public officials would be to ignore, according to Justice Fernando, “the harsh and compelling realities of public service with its ever-present temptation to heed the call of greed and avarice…”

This has been upgraded to a constitutional requirement.

In 1987, in reaction to the alleged cronyism that plagued the Marcos dictatorship, the framers of the new Constitution resolved to inject a provision requiring public officials, upon assumption to office, to submit a declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities and net worth, or the SALN.

Article 11, section 17 of the Constitution provides that in the case of the President, the Vice President, the members of the Cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the constitutional commissions and other constitutional offices, and officers of the armed forces with general or flag rank, the declaration shall be disclosed to the public in the manner provided by law.

The Constitution has thus placed public officials of high station in a custom-built aquarium of transparency. Again, this was to obviate a repetition of the excesses of martial law that was notorious for leaving unchecked the hidden wealth and profligate lifestyles of those who lived near the vortex of political power.

Even Congress is now powerless to do away with the SALN requirement.

Consequently, the code of ethics for government employees requires the filing of the SALN upon assumption to office and by the 30th of April of every year while in public office. The apparent intent is to track the official’s personal wealth and ensure that he does not unduly enrich himself while in office.

Notably, the same law requires that the SALN be made available for inspection at reasonable hours. It may also be obtained by news and communications media for dissemination to the general public. The rule is transparency, the only exception being that it is unlawful to use the SALN for a purpose that is “contrary to morals or public policy.”

Two chief justices of the Supreme Court have so far been ousted from office on allegations relating to their SALN. Joseph Estrada resigned the presidency after the public outrage that followed presentation of evidence that he owned assets way more substantial than his sworn declaration. This illustrates how this document can affect one’s tenure in public office. Discounting its importance can set the wheels of impeachment in motion.

The public has not seen the SALN of President Duterte for the years 2018 and 2019. He is the first president not to have publicly released his declaration throughout the existence of the current Constitution.

Upon queries by members of the media, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said it is up to the Office of the Ombudsman to decide whether to make public the president’s SALN. He said that the Ombudsman has a mechanism in place that the people must follow if they seek to secure a copy of the SALN.

What Roque is not saying is that the Office of the Ombudsman has a mechanism to regulate the release of copies of SALNs that are in its files. All government offices keep copies of the SALNs of functionaries in their employ. It is not necessary to consult the Ombudsman on the matter of their release to the public. It need not be extracted, it can be shown voluntarily.

What is clear is that the Constitution favors public disclosure of the declaration, in keeping with the principle that public office is a public trust. Immunity to scrutiny is anathema to the policy of transparency that a public officer accepts when he takes his oath and swears fealty to the Constitution./WDJ

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