Calling a spade
Business World 1 February 2012

If the paper written in 2007 by Deputy Ombudsman for the Visayas Pelagio S. Apostol is accurate, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales is not only sitting on a gold mine of information that can root out the corrupt among the highest government officials, but also the equipment that can get at that gold mine with ease.

It seems that in August of 2006 — according to Apostol — “the SALN Data Bank System was designed and installed in the Office of the Ombudsman to capture SALNs filed at the Central Office. This system is still in its initial implementation stage but later on it can be adopted by the area/sectoral offices. It has the capability to track compliance by producing a report showing a list of filers who filed their SALNs in the previous years but did not file this year. It is also useful in trend analysis by providing data about the yearly percentage increase in the net worth of a filer.” And that has got to be just for starters.

Interestingly, the data bank, together with a case monitoring and tracking system “to support the prosecution of corruption cases” was part of a grant funded by the ASEM and administered by the World Bank.

And guess whose SALNs will be part of that system, or rather, guess who are required to submit their SALNs to the Ombudsman (as prescribed in the Rule VIII of the Rules Implementing RA 6713 or the Code of Conduct for government employees)? At the national level, the President and Vice-President of the Philippines, the Chairmen and Commissioners of Constitutional Commission and Offices. That has to be the mother lode. Those whose positions are not quite so rarefied submit to the Deputy Ombudsmen, e.g. Regional officials and employees of GOCCs and SUCs (their bosses, i.e. Cabinet and sub-Cabinet members, heads of GOCCs and SUCs, and officers of the Armed Forces from the rank of colonel or navy captain submit theirs to the Office of the President).

The rub is that five and a half years later, I still haven’t heard a peep from the Ombudsman’s office about what the gold mine has produced, if any. I’ve called them up to ask for a quick status report, but they still haven’t gotten back to me as of this writing.

I used Apostol’s paper for an analysis of Gloria Arroyo’s SALNs (which PCIJ had obtained and themselves analyzed) I made for what was then QTV. Two and a half years later, that analysis is still on YouTube, and if I may say so, it bears watching again (obviously interest in it has increased, as comments were as recent as three weeks ago), if only to compare the SALN issues in the cases of Gloria Arroyo and Renato Corona.

With Arroyo, the issue was unexplained wealth during her presidency: her SALN showed a jump in her net worth from something like P60 million to P149 million (about 2.5 times the original). She never did explain it. With Corona, the issue, whether couched in that language or not, is also unexplained wealth acquired since he joined the Supreme Court. The jump in his net worth was from P15 million to P23 million (about 1.5 times the original).

It must be said, though, that the movements in Corona’s SALNs are definitely less problematic than those of Arroyo: for one, the former show an increase in liabilities of P11 million in 2003 (borrowed from wife’s family corporation which is engaged in real estate), and an accompanying DECREASE in his net worth — the loan was apparently paid off gradually over a six-year period, and was extinguished only in 2010.

For another, he explains the purchase of the two controversial condominium units in Taguig (one in 2004, the other in 2010) thusly: “Note: We sold two parcels of land in QC to purchase/pay the loans for condo units (4) and (5).” One of these is obviously the controversial Bellagio penthouse to which he assigns a current/fair market value of P6.8 million, which the prosecutors claim is a gross undervaluation.

Is undervaluation of real property in submitted SALNs something which is uniquely Corona’s sin, or is it the usual practice by SALN filers (maybe 1.3 million of them), especially since the chances of being caught seem to be minuscule? The question can be resolved easily, if anybody is sincerely interested: get a random sample of SALNs filers from the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Judiciary; look at their SALNs over a period of 10 years. And see what percentage of these SALNs are a)completely filled and b) show any significant change in the current/fair market value assigned to the real property of the filers.

Anybody want to lay a bet as to what will be the result? Before you decide, bear in mind that PNoy’s Times Street residence in QC was assigned the current/fair market value of P1.9 million in his 2010 SALN. Even if it is claimed that his ownership represents only one-fifth of the value of the property, that is still a gross undervaluation. And I am morally certain that PNoy had not an ounce of malice (i.e., he wasn’t doing it on purpose) when he signed that SALN.

Apostol’s paper also sheds light on other issues brought up with respect to SALNs. For example, it turns out that (per the implementing rules), the employee/official must submit his SALN to the head of the personnel or human resource division (the Clerk of Court, in the case of the SC), whose responsibility it is to check whether the SALN is “properly accomplished,” i.e., whether the filer has filled in all the blanks.

The personnel head then submits a report to the head of the office (Corona himself, for the SC), listing the employees who filed correctly, whose filing was incomplete, and who did not file. The agency head then must issue an order to those concerned that they have three days to complete/submit the SALNs. One wonders, in the case of the incomplete filing of Corona’s SALNs, whether Clerk of Court Vidal failed to submit the lists to Corona, or whether Corona ignored his own letter.

If nothing else, this impeachment trial should teach us to take that SALN seriously. By “us,” I mean not just the government employees who are required to file, but the ultimate repositories of those documents, who are supposed to use them to detect corruption. Unfortunately, under the present system, that is unlikely to happen: senators submit to the Secretary of the Senate; congressmen submit to the Secretary General of the House, and the Justices of the Supreme Court to the Clerk of Court. Can you imagine these officials investigating their bosses? Ridiculous.

But that should not excuse the Office of the President, who receives the SALNs of the Cabinet members, heads of the GOCCs and heads of the SUCs among others. And, of course, the Office of the Ombudsman, who already has the data bank.

Onward and upward