Impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona’s gamble has clearly failed. Seeking to turn the tables on his accusers by attacking the premise of the alleged ten million dollar deposits in his bank accounts, he had his lawyers summon Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales as hostile witness. Since the Supreme Court had already imposed a TRO on any probe on his foreign currency deposits, he probably thought that the Ombudsman has no solid evidence, and that he can bombard the public with his convoluted legalese and cry fishing expedition.
But as it turned out, this strategy was a monumental blunder. It may be too soon to say that it’s all over, but in the public’s eye, it really is. The Ombudsman’s evidence was beyond incriminating: Transaction records of the Chief Justice’s accounts, based on a 22-page report from the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), show around thirty million dollars in withdrawals alone. The movement of the money implies that the chief magistrate was involved in either money laundering or foreign exchange trading and speculation. More importantly for the impeachment court, these millions were not declared in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN).
Clearly taken aback, chief defense counsel Serafim Cuevas tried to block the Ombudsman’s PowerPoint presentation. But the senators knew better; they didn’t want a second envelope redux. For Justice Cuevas, it was arguably the worst cross-examination ever in his long career as a brilliant litigant. For Chief Justice Corona’s handlers, it was a horrible PR nightmare.
But the horror, it seems, is shared by many politicians. The Ombudsman’s actions have wide-ranging implications for them.
Ombudsman Carpio-Morales obtained the supposedly confidential information by merely asking the AMLC for it. How could this be, asked Senator Allan Peter Cayetano, when the AMLC had refused to share the bank records of the unlamented Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee asked for it? The AMLC had said at that time that a court order is needed to share the said information.
The answer is obvious, and the fact that a lawyer like Senator Cayetano had to ask this question boggles the mind. Both the Constitution and the Ombudsman Law empowers the Ombudsman to seek even confidential information from any government instrumentality, sans court order, in the course of her investigation. Other officials like senators don’t have the same powers.
The famously feisty Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, however, expressed apprehension. She “juxtaposed” the Ombudsman’s powers with the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA), which states that the AMLC would have to find probable cause first before it submits information to the Ombudsman and recommend appropriate investigation. But even this should have been a no-brainer, and I think the senator was just being KSP when she raised this.
First of all, the AMLA processes apply only to the AMLC and not to the Ombudsman. If it is the AMLC that detects something fishy, it would have to go through the AMLA-mandated steps of determining probable cause first before proceeding. But if it’s the Ombudsman who detects irregularities in bank transactions, she doesn’t need to wait for the AMLC to declare probable cause; she can obtain the information from AMLC and proceed with her own investigation. Secondly, and this is something even a sixth grader knows, the Constitution, which grants the Ombudsman motu proprio power to investigate, obviously trumps mere statutes like the AMLA and the Foreign Currency Deposits Act (FCDA).
Senator Defensor-Santiago further asked: “Are you of the opinion that should somebody file a complaint against any senator or member of the House, you can go straight to AMLC, and ask for records without going to the court or without waiting for probable cause to be found by the council itself?” Obviously, the answer is yes. And the implication is that, well, all public officials are at the mercy of a very powerful constitutionally-mandated graft-buster. No crooked official is safe.
It’s a shocker, I know. Even the senators were shocked by the precedence set by Ombudsman Carpio-Morales’ actions. Who could blame them? Previous ombudsmen had been very timid in excercising the wide-ranging powers they actually had. It’s the first time the Philippines is seeing an ombudsman who has balls.
Some cynics are pointing out that this might have human rights implications. But what rights would a zealous ombudsman violate? The right to privacy? Public officials are mandated by law to give up, to a considerable extent, their right to privacy. That’s why they are required to file their SALNs every year in the first place. The law puts greater premium on public accountability over flimsy rights of public officials, as it should. Moreover, if these public officials have nothing to hide, why be bothered by the Ombudsman’s wide-ranging powers?
Clearly, the appointment of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales is one of the best decisions President Benigno S. Aquino III has made. She has given teeth to the heretofore unassertive Office of the Ombudsman. As Ateneo School of Government Dean Tony La Vina said, this has opened a pathway to transparency and accountability never before seen in the Philippines.