WHAT HAPPENED. Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama announced at a press conference Monday, Nov. 29, that he “appointed” Homer Mariano Cabaral, a retired National Police Commission regional director, as resident ombudsman for the City Government. He will be, Rama said, City Hall’s “internal watchdog” and will work with the city legal officer on “corruption and ethical matters.” Corruption “is not my cup of tea,” he said.

We don’t know whether his appointment is in accordance with the mandate of the Ombudsman or just under Mayor Mike’s initiative. Cabaral’s specific duties are not yet laid down. His appointment was still being drafted although he was scheduled to start work Wednesday, Dec. 1.

WHAT TRIGGERED THE MOVE. Coincidentally or not, the naming of a resident ombudsman came just after the arrest of a City Hall employee by the regional NBI (National Bureau of Investigation) for alleged extortion over allocation of stalls in Carbon Market. Rama said he fired the employee, saying the money-making activity could be “just the tip of the iceberg,” indicating bigger corruption.

Before Rama succeeded Mayor Edgardo Labella, a city councilor decried the presence of an “ungo [witch] at City Hall” and an anti-corruption advocate and former Cabinet undersecretary alleged there was a “Kurakot Gang” looting the City Government. Both of them had repeatedly raised their allegation. Although they didn’t name the suspected persons or offer evidence, the complainants’ stature should’ve led to an inquiry but top officials did not even publicly comment.

In recent flag ceremony speeches to City Hall workers, Mayor Rama has been telling them he’d retain only those who are not, among others but on the top of his list, “kawatan” (thieves). Last Monday, he warned them there would be no more warning to employees caught involved in illegal activities.

OMBUDSMAN PROCESS NOT FOLLOWED. What tells us that Cabaral’s appointment does not fall under the ombudsman’s program for resident ombudsman coordinators? It is apparently not being done under Ombudsman guidelines, per Administrative Order 22, series of 2011, issued by then Ombudsman Ma. Merceditas N. Gutierrez. Under those rules:

(1) The Ombudsman, not the head of office of the local government unit (called “Partner Office”) shall designate the resident ombudsman coordinator. The head of office, in this case Mayor Rama, shall submit three names to the Deputy Ombudsman for Partner Offices, who shall screen the nominees.

(2) Among the qualifications are that Cabaral must be in the active service who “must be discharging supervisory functions.” He may be “of recognized probity, independence of mind and of proven integrity and competence” and not related by affinity and consanguinity to Mayor Mike. But is he currently working at City Hall? Is he not retired and recruited by the mayor for the job?

Even before Gutierrez’s administrative order of 2011, Ombudsman Aniano Desierto’s AO 10, series of 2001, had also required three nominees from the local government unit (LGU). Under the previous rule, the nominees must come from (a) rank-and-file employees, (b) supervisors, and (c) official or employee recommended by an anti-corruption NGO—in short, in active service.

THERE’S STILL A WAY IN. Despite the qualifications and screening requirement, the LGU’s nominee may still get appointed. How? The rules say the Ombudsman may “upon his/her own initiative, designate or redesignate a public official as resident ombudsman coordinator of a particular partner office.”

Mayor Rama may try to persuade the Ombudsman to appoint Cabaral despite his being not in active service and being nominated alone. That must be how then mayor Tomas Osmeña was able to have his own resident ombudsman. [Osmeña’s last two terms as mayor: 2007-2010 and 2016-2019.] According to publicist Cerwin Eviota, Rama said Tomas started the practice when Mike was vice mayor to him, which Rama continued when he assumed as mayor in 2010. Romeo Cordova, a retired police intelligence officer, served as resident ombudsman.

A city administrator who served under Tomas told Explainer Tuesday, Nov. 30: “During my time, si Mayor Tom ra sab to ang nagpili, but duna gyuy appointment ang resident ombudsman from the Ombudsman RD.”

ANOTHER POSSIBILITY. Rama may also try to include Cebu City among the government agencies where state prosecutors and auditors will be deployed as resident ombudsmen. Last September, the Department of Justice, Office of the Ombudsman and Commission on Audit (COA) signed an agreement to conduct a nationwide corruption investigation by the use of prosecutors and auditors.

Three problems there: (1) The program, which will end on June 30, 2022, may have started already. (2) It is primarily for graft-prone offices and agencies such as the BIR (Bureau of Internal Revenue), Customs and DPWH (Department of Public Works and Highways). (3) Mayor Rama cannot have his man Cabaral as resident ombudsman; it has to be a state prosecutor or a COA auditor.

WHAT CAN BE DONE IN 7 MONTHS. The question may be raised on what a resident ombudsman can achieve in seven months or less, which the Labella administration may have failed to do in more than two years or so.

Still, it’s good optics for the mayor and his candidates seeking reelection—unless his rivals, for good irony, would use the office to complain against alleged irregularities during the Labella-Rama administration.