Tuesday July 17, 2018

Malilong: The Ombudsman’s duty to investigate

PRESIDENT Duterte has dismissed claims that he and his family own huge bank deposits as absolutely false and wants us to believe him even as he refuses to sign a waiver that would have allowed the bank/s to release the details of the accounts, assuming that there were any.

The president could be telling the truth about how actually meager the amount of his bank deposits is and may have a valid reason to not execute the waiver demanded by Sen. Antonio Trillanes. But must he get angry with people or institutions who won’t take his pronouncements as gospel truth?

The Office of the Ombudsman receives hundreds of, perhaps even more, complaints against public officials in an ordinary working week. As protectors of the people, the Ombudsman should act promptly on these complaints, regardless of the form and manner that they were filed. These words are not mine; they’re written in the constitution.

Trillanes sued Duterte in the Ombudsman. The office has no choice but to investigate it. That’s what the constitution says. The Ombudsman shall, among others, “investigate on its own or on complaint by any person, any act or omission of any public official, employee, office or agency if such act or omission appears to be illegal, unjust, improper or inefficient.” There couldn’t be any language plainer than that.

It is not impossible that Trillanes was and continues to be motivated by hatred or ill will, that public interest and the public good were never in his mind when he filed the complaint, and that in fact he merely wants to destabilize the government. But the Ombudsman cannot dismiss the complaint on those assumptions; it has to investigate first if in its evaluation, the act or omission complained of appears to be illegal, etcetera.

If after the investigation, it is determined that Trillanes himself acted in an unjust, illegal or improper manner in filing the complaint such as when he perjured himself, the Ombudsman can run after him too. No one is above the law, not even a senator. And yes, not even the president.

This is not the same as saying that the Ombudsman can and will punish the president, who can be removed only by impeachment. But we should distinguish between the investigating and penalizing functions of the office. The Ombudsman can also act on requests for assistance and conduct fact-finding investigations.

It is thus very regrettable that Duterte should threaten to investigate the office of the Ombudsman and have anyone, who refuses to appear before his investigators, ordered arrested at a time when the office is investigating Trillanes’s complaint. It is not the idea that the Ombudsman will be investigated that is frightening. As I said, no one is above the law. But the timing is.

Duterte is a beneficiary of the constitution. It made him president. There is no glossing over the fact that a record-setting 16 million Filipinos voted for him but the election would not have taken place without the constitution, the same document that he swore to uphold and protect when he assumed office.

Maybe, there is really no connection between his announcement to investigate the Ombudsman and the latter’s ongoing investigation of the Trillanes complaint. Maybe, the timing is merely a coincidence. If it were so, then the president should make that clear in words and in deeds. He can start by stopping to ask victims of the Ombudsman’s supposed injustice to come forward so they can have their revenge. If you don’t mind unsolicited advice, try justice, Mr. President.