Merci’s SALNs a big secret? Ombudsman mocks law on disclosure of wealth

Merci’s SALNs a big secret?
Ombudsman mocks law on disclosure of wealth

By Malou Mangahas and Karol Anne M. Ilagan
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

THEY are supposed to be the exemplars when it comes to compliance with the law requiring all civil servants to declare and disclose the full details of their assets, liabilities and net worth.

After all, the Office of the Ombudsman is vastly empowered by the Constitution to serve as the premier integrity and anti-graft agency of the land.

But only token compliance to absolute indifference to the law on the filing and disclosure of their Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) seems to be the attitude and conduct common to Ombudsman Ma. Merceditas N. Gutierrez and her 11 deputy and assistant Ombudsmen.

Multiple requests filed by the PCIJ for copies of their SALNs with three government offices that are supposed to be repositories of these documents yielded a paltry, if pathetic, harvest.

Copies of the SALNs of Gutierrez and three senior officials of the Ombudsman are simply nowhere to be found in the state agencies that are supposed to receive these documents.

Three deputy Ombudsmen filed just once in 2006, while five other officials, three to four years in a row.

Half of the eight officials with SALNs enrolled insufficient and vague data on the sources of their wealth other than their lawful incomes, thus offering few clues to explain their net worth.

The absence of any copies of Gutierrez’s SALNs in the files of top government agencies – perhaps except her own at the Ombudsman – is one for the books though.

Not a single SALN that Gutierrez might have filed since she became Ombudsman in 2005 could be produced or provided by the Office of the President, the Civil Service Commission (CSC), and even the Office of the Ombudsman itself.

Neither could the secretariat of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC). When Gutierrez was nominated to the Ombudsman in 2005, the nominees were not yet required to submit their SALNs to the JBC, according to Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas, Jr., a JBC member and chair of the Committee on Justice of the House of Representatives.

The Office of the Executive Secretary and Presidential Management Staff at first told the PCIJ that none exists in their files, even though Gutierrez had served briefly as Presidential Legal Counsel and acting Executive Secretary (2004-2005) of then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Last Monday, the Palace said it might have copies of Gutierrez’s SALNs as former Justice secretary and presidential legal counsel, but not as Ombudsman.

The Palace has, however, introduced new documentary requirements before it would release SALNs to requestors. (See separate entry: More barriers to access)

‘Invasion of privacy’

The CSC said it has no copy either of the SALNs of Gutierrez – who had logged over two decades of public service as a career service personnel – and advised the PCIJ to go look for copies in Malacañang.

As a presidential appointee, the Ombudsman is supposed to furnish the Office of the President copies of her SALNs, the CSC said.

Meanwhile, the Office of Legal Affairs of the Ombudsman said the PCIJ’s request – dated Feb. 2, 2011 or 42 days ago – for Gutierrez’s SALN had yet to be forwarded to Gutierrez for the Ombudsman herself to approve.

As of this writing, Gutierrez has yet to furnish the PCIJ copies of her SALN.

For his part, DOJ Undersecretary Francisco Baraan III issued last March 1 an alarming response to a similar request filed last Feb. 22 by GMA 7 News Research for Gutierrez’s SALNs from 1995 to 2010.

He said the DOJ “cannot favorably act on your request because the Department is bound to observe the integrity and confidentiality of our employee’s 201 records, the disclosure of which would constitute an invasion of their privacy.”

Hidden or missing?

Gutierrez and her deputies at the Ombudsman – the agency assigned to serve as custodian of all SALNs – are supposed to enforce compliance by all civil servants with the law on SALNs. In fact, with funds from foreign donors, the Ombudsman a few years back launched a project to upload copies of all the SALNs that it had been gathering in a digital database.

But the curious case of the Ombudsman’s own missing or hidden SALNs is a travesty of the law, even as her deputies seem to engage in sheer mockery of the same law.

In separate letters filed last February with Malacañang, the CSC and the Ombudsman itself, the PCIJ requested copies of the SALNs and Personal Data Sheets or curriculum vitae of Gutierrez and the following officials for the years 2006 to 2010: Assistant Ombudsman Jose Tereso U. de Jesus, Jr., Overall Deputy Ombudsman Orlando C. Casimiro, Assistant Ombudsman Evelyn A. Baliton, Assistant Ombudsman Lydia O. Resurreccion, Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon Mark E. Jalandoni, Deputy Ombudsman for Visayas Pelagio S. Apostol, Deputy Ombudsman for Mindanao Humphrey T. Monteroso, Assistant Ombudsman Virginia P. Santiago, Officer-in-Charge Rodolfo M. Elman, Deputy Ombudsman for the Military and Other Law Enforcement Offices Emilio A. Gonzalez III, and Special Prosecutor Wendell E. Barreras-Sulit.

The PCIJ gathers these documents for research purposes, as well as to constantly update its database on the SALNs and CVs of government officials and employees. That database currently includes documents beginning from 20 years ago.

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No record at CSC

In a letter dated Feb. 18, 2011, though, Hilda Diokno, acting director of the CSC’s Integrated Records Management Office (IRMO), stated that “(w)e have no record of the SALNs of Ombudsman Gutierrez, Hon. Santiago, Monteroso and Elman.”

The CSC gave the PCIJ the SALNs of only eight deputies of Gutierrez, upon payment of P630 in reproduction fees. The CSC charges P30 for a copy of each SALN, and only on certification of the head of the requestor’s organization.

According to the CSC’s staff, copies of the SALNs of constitutional appointees such as the Ombudsman are filed with the Office of the President.

Indeed, another law, Republic Act No. 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, provides that every public officer shall prepare and file the SALN with the office of the corresponding Department Head. In the case of a Head of Department or chief of an independent office, the law states that their SALNs must be filed with the Office of the President.

On Feb. 8, 2011, the PCIJ then made a request to Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Jr. for the SALNs of Gutierrez, as well as that of her predecessors, former Ombudsmen Simeon V. Marcelo, Aniano A. Desierto, and Conrado M. Vasquez.

For over a month, the Office of the President (OP) failed to officially respond to PCIJ’s letter. This is even as the PCIJ had made six calls, and was referred to at least three persons. On Mar. 9, 2010, a staff personnel at the OP said that comments on the request are still being consolidated.

In response to PCIJ’s queries, Presidential Communications Secretary Ramon “Ricky” Carandang wrote last March 13, saying, “I have conferred with Executive Secretary Ochoa about your query. The Office of the President does not have copies of the Ombudsman’s statements of assets and liabilities and net worth. The Ombudsman has not submitted these documents to the OP.”

Carandang promised to check if Gutierrez had filed her SALNs with Malacañang while she was serving as chief presidential legal counsel.

Merci keeps mum

In the meantime, the Office of the Ombudsman has yet to act on the PCIJ’s request dated last Feb. 2. The PCIJ did receive a perfunctory reply: a letter that the Ombudsman’s Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) sent a week later via post, stating that it had received the PCIJ’s request.

Thus far, the PCIJ has made at least 13 calls to the Ombudsman, and been referred to at least two individuals. On Mar. 10, a staffer at the OLA said that a “draft” was already with OLA Acting Director Maribeth Padios. The staffer said that the “draft” contains OLA’s recommendations for PCIJ’s request, which would then be sent to Ombudsman Gutierrez for her approval. When queried further, however, the employee refused to disclose the contents of the draft.

Six weeks and multiple requests for copies of the SALNs of Gutierrez and her 11 deputies yielded for the PCIJ only the following documents: the SALNs of Assistant Ombudsman de Jesus (2006-2009), Overall Deputy Ombudsman Casimiro (2006 only), Assistant Ombudsman Evelyn A. Baliton (2006-2009), Assistant Ombudsman Resurreccion (2007-2009), Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon Jalandoni (2007-2009), Deputy Ombudsman for Visayas Apostol (2006 only), Deputy Ombudsman for the Military and Other Law Enforcement Offices Gonzalez (2006 only), and Special Prosecutor Wendell E. Barreras-Sulit (2006-2009).

According to Republic Act No. 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, the SALN shall contain information on the following: real property, its improvements, acquisition costs, assessed value and current fair market value; personal property and acquisition cost; all other assets such as investments, cash on hand or in banks, stocks, bonds, and the like; liabilities; and all business interests and financial connections.

Public officials must file their SALNs within 30 days after assumption of office, on or before April 30 (of every year thereafter), and within 30 days after separation from the service.

More questions

The SALNs of the high-ranking officials of the Ombudsman’s Office demonstrate generally fair to poor amount of data. A closer scrutiny of the documents raises more questions than answers, on account largely of insufficient, missing, or withheld data, making it difficult for anyone to assess the veracity of the official’s declared net worth.

For instance, the SALN of Jalandoni, Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon, states that his net worth grew by P3 million from P14.9 million in 2007 to P17.9 in 2009. The P3-million increase came from an additional P1 million entered as his acquisition cost for a lot located in “Pres. Ave., Teoville Subd,” P1.5 million more in his cash in bank and an added P500,000 worth of jewelry. In three SALNs that he filed from 2007 to 2009, however, Jalandoni did not state the exact year or date when he acquired this property.

While it is very possible cash in bank earned interest, interest income for regular savings or special deposit ranges only between two to 3.5 percent per annum. Time deposits, meanwhile, may reach up to 7.5 percent per year only.

Jalandoni’s SALNs show that his net worth increased by as much as P3 million even though he declared a monthly salary that grew by only P3,554 – from P27,866 in 2007 to P31,420 in 2009.

In those three years, Jalandoni did not also declare any business interests or financial connections. He disclosed, however, that in those three years, his father Julio J. Jalandoni, was director of the Board of the state-run Philippine National Oil Co. or PNOC, a nominee of then President Arroyo.

Accused by bishop

Months ago, Julio Jalandoni appeared at a Senate Blue Ribbon Committee hearing into illegal gambling operations, after retired Archbishop Oscar V. Cruz named a certain “Boy Jalandoni” as “the jueteng lord of Bacolod.” The elder Jalandoni holds the franchise to operate Small Town Lottery for Bacolod City and Negros Occidental province.

Julio Jalandoni was earlier appointed by Arroyo as a government nominee to the Philippine Communications Satellite (Philcomsat) Corp., where he supposedly received P1.6 million in compensation fees and cash advances, according to a 2008 privilege speech of Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile. In addition, Enrile said a P1.2-million check for “cash advances” that Philcomsat issued to its subsidiary Telecommunications Center, Inc. “ended up in… Calistoga Corporation… where Julio Jalandoni was the owner of 47.1 percent and a certain Sylvia Jalandoni owns the rest of the shares.” Sylvia is reportedly the wife of Julio Jalandoni.

To this day, the PNOC’s official website lists Julio Jalandoni as a Board director, together with columnist Emil P. Jurado, former Economic Planning secretary Dante B. Canlas, Bob D. Gothong, Ramon B. Mitra, and Nicanor L. Sering.

On Mar. 5 last year, Arroyo reappointed Julio Jalandoni, Canlas, Gothong, and Mitra to the PNOC Board seats, among over 700 “midnight appointments” she made two months before the May 2010 elections.

While his parents are clearly well off, how Deputy Ombudsman Jalandoni managed to save significant amounts to shore up his net worth is an apparent if also unexplained achievement. The young Jalandoni did not name his spouse but disclosed that he has two young children that he must sustain on just a monthly salary of P31,420.

Sacked Customs cop

Jalandoni’s SALNs are stingy with details; he withheld information on when he acquired his P5.5-million house and lot as well as its assessed and current fair market values, and the cost of improvements he might have made on the property.

Ironically, just last Feb. 7, Mark Jalandoni ordered the dismissal of the police chief of the Bureau of Customs, Jose Brigido Yuchongco, after finding him guilty of alleged grave misconduct and dishonesty.

In his decision, Jalandoni said that Yuchongco “failed to declare or wrongfully declared various assets in his SALN from 1994 to 2004.”

In particular, Jalandoni said Yuchongco did not disclose information about his multi-million-peso mansion in Muntinlupa City, three farm lots in Albay and Batangas provinces, P1.8-million proceeds from the sale of his house in Paranaque City, and lottery winnings in 1996 amounting to P3.3 million.

Settled loans

The SALNs of Assistant Ombudsman Baliton from 2007 to 2009 are as interesting. In 2006, Baliton stated that she and her husband, a manager at the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), had liabilities worth P879,020.26 from the BSP Provident Fund. The following year, in 2007, all five loans from the BSP Provident Fund were no longer listed in Baliton’s SALN, suggesting perhaps that her husband had settled it all. A new entry, a personal credit worth P100,000 from “CITIBANK, etc.,” was indicated.

The value of the Balitons’ properties, however, did not decrease but even grew by P695,000 more, from P2.03 million in 2006 to P2.73 in 2007. The joint SALNs therefore show that the couple was able to pay their loans and acquire more personal properties at the same time in the same year.

Baliton’s declared annual salary did not increase – she pegged it at P498,708 in her SALNs for both 2006 and 2007.

Comparisons could not be made for the SALNs of Deputy Ombudsmen Casimiro, Apostol, and Gonzalez because the CSC has copies only of the SALNs that they had filed separately for the year 2006. This indicates an apparent failure by Casimiro, Apostol, and Gonzalez to file their SALNs year on year, as the law so requires.

Most of Gutierrez’s deputies stated in their respective SALNs only their basic monthly or annual salaries that reportedly ranged from P300,000 to over P500,000 between 2006 and 2009.

Sulit bares more

But Special Prosecutor Wendell B. Sulit was more forthcoming. She declared her annual income “inclusive of allowances and bonuses” that started at P796,333 in 2006 and rose higher and higher to reach P980,338 in 2009.

It is highly improbable, of course, for Sulit, a lower rank official, to be earning much, much bigger sums than her seniors at the Ombudsman. Indeed, Sulit’s SALNs point to unique situation at the Office: apart from their lawful basic salaries, Gutierrez and her deputies seem to be receiving generous allowances and bonuses that significantly enhance their take-home pay.

Aside from giving out skimpy details in their SALNs, three of Gutierrez’s deputies revealed that they have hired relatives to work with them at the Office of the Ombudsman. Baliton’s nephew Christopher Lilito A. Bacungan III is an Executive Assistant IV; Emilio Gonzalez’s niece Mercedes Gonzalez is employed with the Ombudsman RSSB; and Orlando Casimiro’s nephews-in-law Karlo Flores and Manruses Enot are executive assistant and AGIO I, respectively, at the Ombudsman.

Public office is a public trust, or so the law states. Government officials and employees shall at all times be accountable to the people, performing their duties with utmost responsibility, integrity, competence, and loyalty, it says further. Public officials, the law prescribes, shall also act with patriotism and justice, lead modest lives, and uphold public interest over personal interest.

It is for these reasons that the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees requires officials and employees to accomplish and submit declarations under oath of their assets, liabilities, net worth and financial and business interests including those of their spouses and of unmarried children under 18 living in their households. All these information, the same law also states, are information the public has the right to know of.

By the spirit and the letter of the law, public officials must file SALNs that are sufficient in form and substance, but most especially Gutierrez and her deputies at the Ombudsman – the nation’s premier anti-corruption agency and custodian of the SALNs of those who serve in government. – PCIJ, March 2011

Republished with permission