Scoring the Ombudsman

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By Neil Honeyman

An Independent View

Monday, December 16, 2013


LAST week’s International Anti-Corruption Day held at Panaad Sports Stadium, attended by a wide range of participants from the public sector, will, hopefully, lead to a more integrated and hence a more effective anti-corruption initiative.

Before the Anti-Corruption Day, Negros Occidental Vice Gov. Eugenio Jose Lacson emphasized the importance of collectivity: we all have a part to play if we are to fight corruption successfully.

***

The fight against corruption begins with someone reporting an apparently anomalous situation. Most of us are pragmatic. If we judge that reporting alleged corruption has little or no chance of producing results, we are unlikely to bother particularly when there are downside risks. Underreporting is a problem currently being faced by those who are tasked with fighting corruption.

A major corruption arena in the public sector is overpriced contracts. The Ombudsman has difficulties with these. Lampposts in Cebu, noodles for students, computers in Bacolod schools have all resulted in lengthy investigations. The Ombudsman rejected the complaint about overpriced noodles. But to the layman, P200 per kilo for noodles constitutes a prima facie overprice.

We gain the impression that the Ombudsman’s investigators are no match for the investigated whose standard technique is to invoke complexity in relation to the contract.

Sometimes we think the Ombudsman is making progress but those who are being investigated seem able to counteract any developments. The case goes down a black hole and we do not hear anything for months or even years.

Clearly there is some burden of proof on the Ombudsman, though ultimately it may be for the courts to decide.

Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales talks in terms of a zero backlog program. How will this be achieved? Will there be procedural changes in the Ombudsman’s office which will ensure that cases are dealt with expeditiously?

One possibility is for the Ombudsman to delegate more. For example, in the case involving alleged overprice of computers in Bacolod schools, the Deputy Ombudsman for the Visayas, Pelagio Apostol, submitted his report to the Ombudsman well over a year ago. The Ombudsman’s head office then went over the same ground and did not apparently find out anything that had not been determined already. Was it necessary to duplicate the work done in the Visayas?

Then there are the criteria to be used by the Ombudsman. We believe the bar should be set at: ‘does the respondent have a case to answer?’ so that, is so, charges may be filed. We wonder if the Ombudsman’s office is assuming a burden of proof above that which is reasonable.

The Ombudsman may believe that we all have a duty to report corruption when we encounter it. But if we have that duty, the Ombudsman has a corresponding obligation to deal promptly with cases. The current failure to do so leads to many cases not being reported at all.

By reducing backlog, the Ombudsman will be operating more efficiently.

We hope so, since at present the public’s perception is that the Ombudsman’s office is not a particularly effective anti-corruption body.

But let us remember the adage:

‘It is easier to bury the truth than to unearth it.’

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on December 16, 2013.

Opinion

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