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Government officials have gotten away with misdeclaring their wealth, thanks to the absence of guidelines on how to fill up a document that reflects their assets and liabilities.
This was pointed out by Ariel G. Ronquillo, chief of the Civil Service Commission's (CSC) Office for Legal Affairs.
However, the utter absence of rules in filling up the Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) doesn't just help dishonest public servants go scot-free.
It also unintentionally prompts honest officials into making asset declarations that are not faithful because they barely have an idea on what kind of information to provide in their SALNs.
The SALN form "does not contain all the requirements of the law and is not an effective instrument of transparency because you can hide so many things," Ronquillo told InterAksyon. "That’s why people are taking it for granted…Some have even mastered the art of going around the law through the form."
Here are four reasons why in the Philippines, truthful asset declarations are arguably the exception than the rule.
1) Asset declarations can become discretionary.
Without any strict guidelines, let alone penalties in SALN omissions, underdeclarations, and misdeclarations, many public servants just go through the motions of filing the form yearly.
“In the absence of any clear instructions that you have to fill up everything, since for compliance lang naman ‘yan, basta naka-declare tapos may value, okay na [since it’s just for compliance, what is important is you declare and it has value],” Ronquillo said.
The case of former Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) comptroller Major Gen. Carlos F. Garcia, accused of illegally amassing more than P300 million, best underscores this discrepancy.
After failing to include his wife's assets in his SALN form, Garcia was acquitted of perjury by the Sandiganbayan because the form did not provide a space requiring the general to declare his spouse's assets, Ronquillo said.
"A closer look at both the SALN forms prepared by the CSC and the one used by the AFP, will tell us that nowhere in the boxes required to be filled up can a single space be found for the filer to declare assets, liabilities, and net worth of the spouse and children below 18 years old and living with the public official or employee," the anti-graft court's second division said in its 54-page decision in 2008.
2) Asset declarations of foreign currency deposits are optional.
Since the SALN form only requires government employees to declare their assets in Philippine currency, they may choose to refuse divulging their foreign currency deposits.
Under this arrangement, public officials with foreign currency deposits can refuse to declare them because the SALN form does not categorically ask them to do so, Ronquillo said.
“He is not under obligation kasi ang hinihingi ditong declaration pesos [because the declaration being sought is in pesos]," he said.
Another gray area, which can also be used by government workers to avoid truthfully disclosing their total income, is a portion in the 1994 SALN form that asks them to enumerate their earnings.
Since the blank portion on the upper right side of the SALN only asks for "(government) position/income[s]," public workers may interpret this as their incomes as civil servants and not their total incomes inside and outside of government service.
3) Values of real-estate properties can be understated.
Since public servants enjoy discretion in filling up their SALNs, many can opt to declare lower prices for their properties, Ronquillo said.
Most of the time, assessed values of a property are entered in the SALN, he said. Set by the city or municipal hall's assessor's office every three years, the valuation is already the depreciated value of the property, according to Ronquillo.
Instead of the assessed value, the property's acquisition cost should be declared in the SALN because the cost reflects the actual amount a public servant paid for his/her property. The acquisition cost then could be matched to their purchasing capacity based on his or her lawful income.
“The only thing that is fixed and very clear will be the acquisition cost. Let the depreciation be taken care of by the statement about the year it was acquired,” the CSC official said.
Non-declaration in the SALN of the acquisition cost of assets appear to be common among ranking government officials, including allegedly Chief Justice Renato Corona.
In his SALNs from 2002 to 2010, Corona did not declare the acquisition cost of the properties he bought.
Also, last March, Department of Budget and Management Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad acknowledged that he had only been listing his properties' assessed values on his SALN.
Four in every 10 lawmakers also failed to declare the acquisition cost of their real properties, data culled by InterAksyon.com from the 2004 SALNS of the 236 members of the 13th House of Representatives show.
Data gathered by InterAksyon.com were based on the July 2004 SALNs of the lawmakers that were uploaded on www.i-site.ph of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.
Some of the lawmakers list their real properties and personal assets but omit information on the years that the assets were acquired.
Some don’t even list the location of their real properties on their SALNs. Others fail to specify their personal assets, and just put “various” and “unspecified” in the vehicles and pieces of jewelry they list on their SALN forms.
Based on Ronquillo’s estimate, six in every 10 public servants file their SALNs for the sake of submitting the document and not for complying with laws that mandate them to accomplish the form truthfully.
4) Few complaints are filed against officials with inaccurate SALN declarations.
Although both government officials and employees are required to fill up the same SALN form, only lowly civil servants are often slapped with complaints of failure to file a true and detailed SALN form, former senator Rene Saguisag told InterAksyon.
The former senator, who helped pass the Code of Conduct for Public Officials (R. A. 6713) which requires public servants to declare assets truthfully, said that only the small fry are suspended and fined.
“Ayon sa mga desisyon, yung mga biya, ‘yong mga small fry, aba’y kung anu-anong parusa ang inabot, from suspension with fines. Magagawa ba nila ‘yan sa isang dambuhala? O may isang batas para sa maliliit, isang batas para sa mga pating at mga balyena at mga barracuda?” said Saguisag.
[Based on the decisions, only the small fry are suspended and fined. Can they do that to a giant? Or is there a separate law for the small ones and another for the sharks, whales, and barracudas?)
Saguisag’s observation is bolstered by data from both the Office of the Ombudsman, which prosecutes officials accused of graft and corruption, and the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission (PAGC), which looks into alleged wrongdoing by presidential appointees.
From 2000 to June 30, 2007, only 318 asset declaration-related cases were filed against public servants, data from the Office of the Ombudsman show.
Meanwhile, separate data from the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission showed that from 2003 to June 30, 2007, only 21 administrative cases related to the non-submission of SALN and the failure to file a true and detailed SALN were filed against government officials.