National Police chief Bato dela Rosa startled the Ombudsman from long deep slumber. He admitted on TV that his recent family vacation to Sen. Manny Pacquiao’s Las Vegas boxing fight was courtesy of the latter. At once the Ombudsman declared him in breach of law. Government men are forbidden from soliciting or accepting gifts of value, he was reminded. It’s punishable under Republic Act 6713, the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees. Violators can be imprisoned, fired, and barred for life from public office.
Even birthday, wedding, or Christmas gifts are banned. The value is set at P5,000-upwards, although some agencies like the Bureau of Internal Revenue disallow even cakes worth less than P500. The plane fares, hotel stays, and ringside tickets of Bato and family surely exceed P5,000. The Ombudsman will indict him, even though he and Pacquiao have long been spending on each other as compadres. Pacquiao too can be held liable for gift-giving under Presidential Decree 46, although he habitually distributes fight tickets to fellow-legislators since he became a billionaire-world champ. The anti-corruption laws aim to deter present or future official favors from the gift accepter. Still it matters not that Pacquiao is no criminal seeking clemency from Top Cop Bato. Nor does it matter that Bato naively admitted to vacationing courtesy of Pacquiao to dispel notions that he junketed on state expense. Gifts are taboo. The law is harsh, but it is law.
It’s just a wonder that the Ombudsman awoke only now. In 2012-2014 anti-graft crusaders decried the overpricing of rice imports from Vietnam by the National Food Authority. Investigation could have started by comparing the import price with the grains-trading rates posted on public websites. That a privateer, repeatedly identified in newspapers, brokered the G-to-G deals was a telltale sign of sleaze. The Ombudsman’s inaction emboldened the Agriculture department crooks to smuggle, hoard, and fix prices of garlic, onion, ginger, and vegetables. Still the Ombudsman slept.
As loud is the public outcry against crooked deals at the Transport department, under two administrations, 2013 to the present. Vehicle license platemaking was still being bid out when parties noticed an unqualified bidder. The Filipino company was blacklisted from government contracting for forgery, while its foreign financier was undercapitalized. The officials not only let it bid but also win. The result is grossly and manifestly disadvantageous to public interest. Vehicle registrants were made to purchase the plates that were never delivered. Street assassinations and other heinous crimes abound because there is no way for police and witnesses to identify the getaway vehicles. The Ombudsman has not lifted a finger.
Same with the driving license contract. Transport officials messed up so big that the agency ran out of plastic license cards, and today issues only paper slips. Yet such cards easily can be procured, for P150, from document forgers, like those in notorious Recto Avenue, Manila. Again no action by the Ombudsman.
Impossible to be unheard are the complaints of riders against the frequent breakdowns of the Metro Manila commuter rails. Well documented in this column are the graft and corruption that went into the contracting of unqualified but influential maintenance firms. The transport chief in 2012-2016, as head of the ruling Liberals, awarded the multibillion-peso deals to party mates. The anomalies go on to this day. The Ombudsman remains unmoved.
Speaking of documents, past Ombudsmen had been diligent in digging them up. In 2004 Simeon Marcelo requested for documents of my exposés of comptroller-general Carlos Garcia’s plunder of P302 million in Armed Forces funds, and other misdeeds by other officers. That led to a slew of convictions and cleansing of military procurements. In 2007 Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio asked for my documents on the National Broadband Network-ZTE Corp. scam. That led to several indictments. The present Ombudsman seems allergic to papers, and prefers to investigate based only on inadvertent admissions like General Bato’s.
And yet the Ombudsman has vast constitutional powers. It can initiate probes on its own, even without formal complaints, of any official act that looks illegal, unjust, improper, or inefficient. It can compel officials and agencies to submit documents; punish erring personnel; point out irregularities to the Commission on Audit; deputize other offices for its needs; publicize its probes; look into and solve red tape, inefficiency, mismanagement, fraud and corruption; and set its own rules.
Singling out a perceived offender while ignoring others is not part of the rules, however. Sen. Rene Saguisag proved that in court in the 1980s. Although a co-author of the Code of Conduct, he blocked the trial of a Laguna mayor, then in the limelight for a rape-murder, for faulty Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth. The court agreed that it’s unfair since tens of thousands of other officials did not file such annual statements. The law is for all, or none at all.
Politics is at play in the case of Bato, his defenders say. The police general is an appointee of Pres. Rodrigo Duterte, who is going after Sen. Leila de Lima for narco-trafficking, but whom her Ombudsman-friend prematurely has cleared of such charges even before formal filing. Whereas, the Ombudsman was appointed by the administration of de Lima’s Liberals — the agriculture and transport crooks who are now scot free.