Vacant chairs, vacuous search. Who should head COA, Comelec, CSC, CHR?

By Malou Mangahas
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

A SILENT EMERGENCY is unfolding, a portent of a likely crisis of integrity should President Benigno S. Aquino III fail to act swiftly and well: Four Constitutional Commissions with mandate and power to run after crooks and foster good governance will become headless entities starting today and until May 2015. And unless Aquino acts soon to appoint the most qualified for the job, drift and inertia could ensue in these agencies, partisan politics could override his choices, and his “Daang Matuwid” reforms could head off to disrepair or reversal.

Today February 2 is the last day of work for Chairpersons Maria Gracia M. Pulido Tan of Commission on Audit (COA) and Sixto S. Brillantes Jr. of the Commission on Elections (Comelec). It is also the day when Comelec Commissioners Lucenito N. Tagle and Elias R. Yusoph will step down, leaving the poll body with just four commissioners in position.

Meanwhile, Commission on Human Rights Chairperson Loretta Ann P. Rosales is scheduled to leave office in May 2015. She was appointed to the post on Sept, 1, 2010 to finish the unexpired term of Leila de Lima, who had been named Justice Secretary by Aquino.

At the Civil Service Commission, Chairman Francisco T. Duque III seems to be on his way out as well soon. Confirmed as CSC head in February 2010, he was among then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s 977 “midnight appointees.”

Duque has logged 16 years in public service as an Arroyo appointee to various senior positions since 1999. He should have served a seven-year full term at the CSC until February 2017. It now appears though that he may have opted to leave earlier after the Supreme Court last week declared null and void Arroyo’s executive order that made him an “ex-officio” board member or trustee of the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS), Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (Philhealth), Employees Compensation Commission (ECC) and Home Development Mutual Fund (HDMF) concurrent to his posting as CSC chairman.

At a testimonial dinner on Friday at the Manila Hotel, Duque was among the outgoing commission chiefs who received plaques of appreciation from their colleagues at the Constitutional Fiscal Agency Group or CFAG.

The heads of the Constitutional Commissions, the Judiciary, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the Commission on Human Rights make up CFAG, which has aligned their administrative, personnel, operations, and budget polices and processes to assure their autonomy.

Thus far, it has been CFAG– and personnel in their agencies – that had the courtesy to say thank you to the four chairpersons who are exiting from public life. Neither the President nor Congress had seen it fit to give them a proper goodbye.

At the Manila Hotel gathering, Supreme Court Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno said that in the choice of replacements for the four chairpersons, “we cannot be content with none but the best for the future of the nation is at stake.”

“Integrity, competence, skills, and management know-how,” she said, are “the qualities needed to make these great institutions run.” Unto “the end of their term,” Sereno said the four chairpersons demonstrated “passion and dedication to the cause of the rule of law.”
According to Sereno, constitutional agencies must continue to preserve their independence and fiscal autonomy because of “the people’s growing demand for transparency and accountability.”
“What should occupy much of people’s time is how we can build our nation brick by brick,” Sereno said. “No longer shall politics take center stage over people’s time and attention.”
Yet while it’s already deadline time for two chairpersons and two election commissioners, no news has been heard from Malacañang about the President’s decision on their replacements. There is hardly hint or evidence that a vigorous search and selection process is under way.

Some of the supposed top contenders interviewed by PCIJ also say they have zero notice from or contact with the Palace, as of this date.

In previous episodes of vacancies at Comelec or COA, reports about certain nominees or applicants being sought out for their curriculum vitae and for interviews with the President made the rounds of civil society, business groups, media, and civil-service networks.

In previous search and selection episodes, the Palace had also consulted with the outgoing officials about possible choices for their replacement. “That is the tradition,” a senior Comelec official said.

Until last weekend, however, Pulido-Tan told PCIJ she had no idea who will succeed her, while Brillantes and the commissioners he will leave behind had zero inkling about who had been short-listed for the three vacancies in Comelec.

It seems like the process has been kept under heavy lock and key, or it has not started in earnest.

Pending any announcements, Commissioner Heidi Mendoza has been named acting chair of COA, and Commissioner Christian Robert Lim, of Comelec.

In the meantime, raw news reports about the likely nominees to the COA and Comelec have sparked more concern than consensus.

Economist Solita C. Monsod says that in light of the upcoming May 2016 elections, the President is in a virtual “Catch 22” situation: Should he decide in favor of politics or keep constitutional commissions independent?

Aquino’s choices “cannot be politicians but that is sine qua non – the nominees must be close to politicians,” Monsod says. “These commissions require people with independence of mind, all of them.”

“Between independence and politics,” Monsod adds, “I would rather have independence anytime.”

To be sure, it is the next President after Aquino who will bear the brunt, good or bad, of his choices. The new chairs of the four constitutional agencies will all serve seven-year full terms ending in 2022 yet.

Monsod herself has been reported to be a nominee to the Comelec posts. But she says she has not been contacted by the President’s office at all and the idea strikes her as “absolutely silly.”

Official sources say they have heard that for the position of COA chair. Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Jacinto-Henares, Budget Secretary Florencio ‘Butch’ Abad, and Executive Secretary Paquito ‘Jojo’ Ochoa Jr. are among the supposed candidates. Two senior officials told PCIJ that they have learned that in one incident, Ochoa had been heard saying, “Akin ang COA (COA is mine).” Whether he meant he wants to be COA chair or he wants to name a nominee to the post is not clear, however.

As for Comelec, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima (who had worked on election cases), retired Supreme Court Associate Justices Ed Nachura and Roberto Abad, and Joe Nathan Tenefrancia
from the Avelino Cruz Jr. camp of what used to be the Villaraza Cruz Marcelo and Angangco law office or “The Firm” are said to be possible candidates for the chairmanship.

“The Firm, ” which has since broken up into the Cruz and Villaraza factions (Cruz Marcelo &Tenefrancia versus Villaraza Angangco), served as counsel of Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel ‘Mar’ Roxas II when he ran for vice president in 2010. Tenefrancia is the counsel on record in Roxas’s election protest case against Vice President Jejomar C. Binay.

A transparent search and selection process is what businessman Ramon del Rosario Jr., chairman of the Makati Business Club, says the nation needs most urgently.

Del Rosario has two proposals: One, “we should call for an open and transparent process, up to the drawing up of a short list at least.” And two, considering the tight deadlines that could soon be overshadowed by the campaign for the May 2016 elections, “we should ask Congress’s Commission on Appointments to act promptly on the appointments, once they have been submitted by the President.” – PCIJ, February 2015

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