Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 28 January 2012

With the public’s interest in so-called SALNs (statement of assets, liabilities and net worth) at an all-time high, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), which has been at the forefront of publicizing how the law allowing public access to the SALNs of government officials has been obeyed more in the breach than in the observance (with the Supreme Court as the No. 1 offender, followed by the Office of the President, the Office of the Ombudsman and the House of Representatives), has offered briefing sessions to media and other concerned citizens on how to make sense of these documents, which have, by the way, been required of government officials and employees since 1960.

That the SALNs are a potentially strong weapon that could ensure victory in the war against corrupt officials and employees there is no doubt, because combined with the income tax returns of the latter, it would be almost a walk in the park to determine any unexplained wealth on their part. As a matter of fact, at least for the last 10 years, the SALN forms signed by government employees “hereby authorize the Ombudsman or his duly representative (sic) to obtain and secure from all appropriate government agencies, including the Bureau of Internal Revenue, such documents that may show my assets, liabilities, net worth, business interests and financial connections, to include those of my spouse and unmarried children below 18 years of age living with me in my household covering past years to include the year I first assumed office in the government.”

But there is a gulf between the potential and actual usefulness of the SALNs, as indicated not only by the fact that the Philippines’ Corruption Perception Index (computed by Transparency International), has, if anything, deteriorated, but by the relatively insignificant number of complaints filed with the Office of the Ombudsman for either forfeiture of assets or even for failure to file “a true and detailed SALN”—an average of 24 a year for the latter, and 15 a year for the former (data for 2000 to mid-2007 taken from a paper by Deputy Ombudsman Pelagio Apostol for the OECD).  These would suggest that the problem may not only be reluctance on the part of the government to release the documents for public scrutiny, but also the indifference of the government agencies themselves to the need to root out corruption.

The latter assertion has basis: it was the PCIJ, if one remembers correctly, that dug out then President Joseph Estrada’s SALNs and used them to allege that he had a great deal of unexplained wealth—which certainly was a key factor in the move to impeach him. Who in the government had the President’s SALNs, and should have been the one, rather than the PCIJ, to blow the whistle? The Office of the Ombudsman, to whom the SALNs of the President, the Vice President and the chairs and commissioners of the constitutional commissions and offices are submitted. So much for the independence of the Ombudsman. One hopes that Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales is made of sterner stuff.

As a result of the misuse or disuse of the SALNs, they tend to be filled up carelessly, with vital information often not provided. Some filers, for example (Corona is one) do not fill up the columns on acquisition costs of their assets, while others do not bother to fill up, or fill up incompletely, the required information on current/fair market value of the assets. The cavalier treatment never gets penalized—and thus, when someone’s SALN is actually scrutinized, any number of “sins” can be attributed to him, whether or not he committed them with malice aforethought.

Take the SALNs of P-Noy, from 2006 to 2010, copies of which were provided to me by GMA News TV so that I could provide some inputs (as far as analysis is concerned). Unfortunately, the copies are barely legible, but even so, a malicious mind could make some potentially embarrassing observations (which could very easily be explained away, if a broader perspective were taken).

For example, one could pounce on the fact that a piece of agricultural land in Concepcion, Tarlac, acquired in 1987, was declared as inherited in 2006 but as purchased in 2009. Or that another piece of agricultural land, this time in Capas, Tarlac, acquired in 1985 (inherited), was not declared in his 2006 SALN.

Or one could criticize him (unfairly) of using acquisition cost values for real property, rather than the much higher current or fair market value. And one could potentially go to town about his Times Street residence: he declared it as acquired in 1985 (by inheritance), but it was not included in his 2006 SALN. Also, the current market value he declared on the property (2010 SALN) was P1.96 million—a figure which has not changed since 2007. There is no way that the Times Street property could be worth, at current prices, less than P2 million.

But it is not only P-Noy’s SALNs that one could go to town with, if one has malice aforethought. One doubts whether there are many people in government whose SALNs could withstand scrutiny, whether in high or low places.

Which is why I am going to withhold judgment on Corona’s SALNs, until I hear what his side has to say. It’s too easy to go wrong