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While the entire nation was outraged by the testimony of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales on CJ Renato Corona's dollar transactions, some senators were more alarmed by the discovery that the bank secrecy law did not provide adequate protection for secret dollar accounts of public officials.
Here's Sen. Miriam Santago: “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 [Anti-Money Laundering Council], and ask for records without going to the court or without waiting for probable cause to be found by the counsel itself?”
Why are some senators concerned that their right to secret dollars account is in jeopardy? If you will recall, waiting for a court order is precisely what gave Gen. Carlos Garcia the time he needed to clean up his bank accounts. Now imagine a senator being investigated by the Ombudsman for undeclared dollar accounts.
If we go by Miriam's book, the Ombudsman would have to get a court order first before she can call in the AMLA. In effect, the Ombudsman warns the senator that she is looking into her secret dollar accounts. The senator in turn will have her day in court to block the opening of her dollar accounts, plus the opportunity to deliver a daily dose of privilege speeches condemning the investigation and calling the Ombudsman all sorts of names.
That's why SALNs (Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth) include a waiver on the part of the filer. The filer authorizes the people's agent, the Ombudsman, to scrutinize his SALN and, if warranted, to look beyond the SALN for evidence of undeclared wealth. Isn't that how it's supposed to be?
Don't be fooled by the argument of the defense panel that “the waiver in foreign currency deposits, as mandated by law, should be applied stringently because you have to protect the confidentiality of the deposits. That should be in line with the purpose of the law.”
The purpose of the law was not to protect hidden dollar accounts of government officials. The purpose of the law, which was enacted during the time of Marcos, was to attract dollar deposits from foreigners. Besides, what kind of law is it that will offer safe haven for a plundering public official's loot?
The jurisdiction of the Ombudsman is limited to public officials. If you are in the private sector, the Ombudsman has no jurisdiction over you unless you are involved in any shenanigans with public officials.
The Office of the Ombudsman was created because there was a need for it. And it was granted vast powers so that it could accomplish its mission: "As protectors of the people, we shall endeavor, in cooperation with all sectors of the Filipino society, to promote integrity and efficiency and high ethical standards in public service through proactive approaches in graft prevention and public assistance, prompt investigation of complaints and aggressive prosecution of cases filed against erring public officials and employees."
Senators also expressed concern that the Ombudsman and the AMLA could be used by the President to hit back at them: Sen. Jinggoy Estrada: Nguni’t paminsan-minsan ay naglalaro sa aking isipan na baka nagagamit po yung AMLC o mismong ang inyong tanggapan sa mga tao o sa mga pulitikong kritikal sa administrasyong ito. Sana naman po, if you can give us the assurance that your office will not be used to get back at the political opponents of the administration." That is a seemingly legitimate concern. But it is bogus. People who do not want to be seen naked should not live in glass houses.
Who put a gun to the head of Sen. Estrada and forced him to run for public office anyway? When one runs for public office one surrenders the right to certain aspects of privacy, specially the right to hidden dollar accounts. Granted that a vindictive president can pressure the Ombudsman or the AMLA to search into the bank accounts of an opposition lawmaker, would an honest lawmaker's bank account yield anything incriminating?
The Ombudsman is one of the things that a public official has to live with. Sobra naman ang swerte nila if the Ombudsman will have to go through hoops just to verify whether they are honest public servants or crooks. The public wants to know, it has a right to know. And the right to know trumps the public official's right to conceal.
Someday, hopefully, we won't need an Ombudsman anymore. But for now, let's give it all the support and powers it needs to accomplish its mission of going after erring public officials and employees.
Buencamino is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph).