Ombudsman’s double standard: Outrage over guard’s bank deposits, silence on 2019 SEA Games fund mess

First of 2 parts




The Manila Times

Front Page

THE nation would have been more impressed and convinced by the words of Ombudsman Samuel Martires when he disclosed at a Senate budget hearing that a security guard in one government agency has P390 million in bank deposits, had he also disclosed and explained the other times and other cases where his office failed to exact accountability and punish graft, particularly in cases involving billions in public funds and high-level officials in government. There would be reason to cheer and no cause for despair in the fight against graft and corruption, if the stint of the current Ombudsman is marked by resolute investigations of corruption in government and firm insistence on accountability in the public service. Still, the Ombudsman must shut down the criticism that it has a double standard in enforcing accountability in government: tough treatment of the cases of lower-level government employees, and careful or timid handling of the cases of high officials in government. Security guard with P390 million At a recent Senate hearing on the Ombudsman’s office budget, Ombudsman Martires made a big show of narrating the fabulous story of a security guard and his wife who each had multimillionpeso bank deposits. He hoped by this to alarm the senators into quickly approving the proposed budget for his office. The Ombudsman rhetorically and politely asked the senators in Filipino: “Kayo po ba ay maniniwala na merong isang empleyado na ang kanyang item ay security guard. At ang kanyang deposito sa bank ay P280 million for the past 21 years. At ang kanyang asawa for the past eight years [ay] may deposito sa bangko na P179 million?Security guard lang po ‘yung asawa (Would you believe there’s an employee whose job item is security guard, whose bank deposits totaled P280 million for the past 21 years, and his wife for the past eight years had a total of P179 million in bank deposits? Her husband is only a security guard).” Martires meant by his narrative to paint a picture of the extent of corruption in government. He declared that his office is set to file charges against the security guard. He then moralized and expressed personal discouragement in his work: “The problem of corruption is so big that sometimes, I just want to quit my post because it seems that nothing is happening in the government’s fight against corruption ...” Tough-minded For all the righteousness, however, the Ombudsman’s narrative was woefully incomplete and incredibly naïve. He provided no details in the findings of his office’s investigation. He had no answers to questions about the source of the funds or its ownership, and no explanation of how the mammoth sum was accumulated by the security guard and his wife. He did not dispel the suspicion of many that the security guard could be fronting for illegal gangs or criminal groups with plenty of money that needed laundering (like drug syndicates and vice dens). Neither did he address the question whether the bosses in the government agency were involved in the deposits, or whether the money deposited was public funds that had been illegally funneled into the bank accounts. In short, our chief graft buster and investigator had zero explanation for the bank deposits. More inquiry will be necessary to answer all the questions. It is not even clear whether the security guard is a proper object of inquiry by the Ombudsman’s office, since the constitutional provision creating the office explicitly says that the Ombudsman’s chief function is to investigate on its own or a complaint against any public official, employee, office or agency. Absent a complaint, the ombudsman has no business investigating anyone in the public service. In the security guard’s case, it is pertinent to ask, who filed the complaint for investigation, and what was the basis for the complaint? Through this case, the Ombudsman wanted to impress on the senators the scale and extent of corruption in government. He dramatized the challenges to his work, to set up a statement about his personal discouragement in the job, so much so that he has thought of quitting. Ironically, the net effect of quitting will not be vindication of his moral outrage, but a confession of failure in the exercise of a public duty. The security guard is only one case. It does not encompass the entire field of responsibility of the Ombudsman. There are countless other cases, far more shocking and more costly to the nation which the public does not hear about. The Ombudsman’s storytelling and moralizing would have been more impressive had he devoted a little time to explaining why it happens that so many bigger cases, involving infinitely more public funds, have not prospered because of the failure of the Ombudsman to follow through and deliver. 30th SEA Games I want to cite in particular the case of the 30th Southeast Asian Games (SEAG) which were held in the country from November 30 to Dec. 11, 2019, and which cost the government some P7.5 billion to host, and billions more in sponsorships from the private sector. When the event was staged here in Manila and other venues, there was some controversy and a lot of talk about the questionable management of the funds for the event. At the close of the games, the Ombudsman stepped into the picture and announced that his office would investigate the management and organization of the games. He promised publicly that his office would deliver a report on its investigation before the year 2019 was over. There was also information that the organizing committee for the Games failed to deliver a financial report on the sports event and a proper liquidation of public funds budgeted for the SEAG. To be continued on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022