Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Philippine Ombudsman defends record

By Michael Punongbayan
Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The Office of the Ombudsman yesterday defended its record as well as Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, outlining what it has done in various controversial cases in an effort to shed light on issues currently hounding the office.

The move came after former Senate president Jovito Salonga and 30 other prominent personalities collectively filed an impeachment complaint against Gutierrez at the House of Representatives Monday.

The complainants accused Gutierrez of gross incompetence, betrayal of public trust and culpable violation of the Constitution.

Assistant Ombudsman Dina Joy Teñala, taking up the cudgels for the embattled agency, said in a letter to The STAR that Ombudsman Gutierrez “has never committed anything wrong, legally, morally or ethically in government which would warrant her resignation or impeachment.”

On the World Bank (WB) report of alleged bid-rigging in relation to road projects being funded by the international financial institution, Teñala said the Office of the Ombudsman received the Referral Report on Nov. 16, 2007 and stressed that the document was marked “Strictly Confidential,” which means it cannot be used for initiating any administrative, criminal, or civil proceedings.

In spite of this, and the apparent absence of witnesses’ names, the Office of the Ombudsman proceeded with its investigation, the statement said.

“The conduct of fact-finding investigation is strictly confidential and cannot be discussed publicly because it may generate controversies that might result in unintended negative publicity, prejudgment or worse, dissipation of evidence and/or witnesses,” Teñala said.

She explained that the confidentiality principle is based not only on existing laws but also on recent jurisprudence, citing the case of Chavez vs. National Housing Authority (G.R. No. 164527, 15 August 2007), where the Supreme Court held that “information on investigations of crimes by law enforcement agencies before the prosecution of the accused is considered confidential.”

The statement also clarified that the Office of the Ombudsman received the WB Integrity for Vice Presidency (INT) Philippine National Road Improvement and Management Program Evidence on Feb. 10, 2009, which was again marked “Strictly Confidential,” meaning the documents were not allowed to be used for initiating any administrative, criminal or civil proceedings.

The complainants in Gutierrez’s impeachment case said that public trust in the anti-graft agency has “collapsed” since President Arroyo named her to the post in December 2005.

“(The Office of the Ombudsman) has become synonymous to inaction, mishandling or downright dismissal of clear cases of graft and corruption, some leading to the President herself or her closest associates,” read the complaint.

In endorsing the impeachment complaint, Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel said Gutierrez had failed to fulfill her constitutional duty.

“She has tarnished the institution with her incompetence and with her apparent bias towards the Arroyo family,” she said.

The complainants said the most notable graft and corruption cases bungled by the Ombudsman under Gutierrez are those involving former justice secretary Hernando Perez, the case of Mega Pacific and former elections chairman Benjamin Abalos, former agriculture undersecretary Jocelyn “Jocjoc” Bolante and the fertilizer scam, and contractors and public officials involved in collusive practices as exposed by the WB.

‘We’re acting on it’

But Teñala said the Office of the Ombudsman is definitely acting on the other big cases, according to law and due process.

She said that on the so-called fertilizer fund scam, which the Ombudsman inherited from her predecessor, Gutierrez immediately created Task Force Abono upon assumption of office, with 40 investigators to conduct a fact-finding investigation covering 17 regions.

“The magnitude of the complaint covers the entire archipelago, involving more or less 178 project proponents including governors, congressmen and mayors. A special panel was created to conduct preliminary investigation. The panel submitted its recommendation which is currently being reviewed by the Ombudsman,” Teñala said.

She also revealed how the Office of the Ombudsman immediately conducted a fact-finding investigation on the alleged smuggling of euros committed by high-ranking officials of the Philippine National Police (PNP) led by retired comptroller Eliseo de la Paz.

“The Field Investigation Office (FIO) of the Office of the Ombudsman has completed its fact-finding investigation and has submitted its report to the Ombudsman for her review,” she said.

Teñala also explained that the Office of the Ombudsman has complied with the directive of the Supreme Court to conduct an investigation on the possible criminal liability, if any, of public officials and other private individuals implicated in the Mega Pacific case.

She said the determination of probable cause lies with the Office of the Ombudsman, adding that a petition for review on the Resolution of the Office of the Ombudsman is now pending before the High Tribunal.

She also stressed that four cases were filed against former justice secretary Perez before the Sandiganbayan.

But the complainants said Gutierrez had filed “late and defective” information in the criminal cases against Perez, who was her boss at the Department of Justice when she was undersecretary.

“The weak information clearly shows Gutierrez’s ‘deliberate intent to cause the dismissal of such cases, or at the very least, gross ignorance of the law and overly manifest incompetence as Ombudsman,” the complainants said.

However, Teñala said two of these cases are now on trial, while the other two cases, which have been dismissed, are the subject of motions for reconsideration.

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