Ombudsman needs more powers, bigger budget
By Purple Romero
May 8, 2011
Congress, judiciary should support anticorruption efforts too, says expert
MANILA, Philippines — President Aquino can always appoint a credible and efficient Ombudsman, but his effort will only bear fruit with the help of Congress and the judiciary, among others.
Tony Kwok, former head of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission on Anti-Corruption (ICAC).
Photo by Mikhail Flores
Tony Kwok, former head of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission on Anti-Corruption (ICAC), told a forum Friday that under the present set-up, the Ombudsman wouldn’t be able to do much in catching corrupt officials due to its limited powers.
“It cannot arrest, it cannot wiretap calls,” he said.
Kwok said Congress should grant the Ombudsman more powers to investigate. Republic Act no. 6770, which creates the Office of the Ombudsman, gives the anti-graft office prosecutorial and investigative powers, but the most that it could access are bank records.
Kwok said both houses of Congress should work toward passing an “anti-corruption friendly law,” which would enable the Office of the Ombusman to do the following:
- demand for information
- arrest and detain suspects
- restrain property
- order a surrender of travel documents
- conduct surveillance and undercover operations
- intercept phone calls
Aside from this, the government should provide the Office of the Ombudsman with more money. For this year, the Ombudsman has a budget of P1.031 billion, or 0.08 percent of the national budget of P1. 3 trillion.
The ideal funding for the office is 0.3 percent of the national budget, according to Kwok. Hong Kong’s ICAC budget of US$89 million is 0.38 percent of the city-state’s budget.
With a bigger funding, the office can then hire competent investigators. At present, the Ombudsman is undermanned, with a ratio of 200 investigators for 1.8 million civil servants.
Kwok, who was a consultant to the Office of the Ombudsman under the term of Simeon Marcelo, had recommended the hiring of more prosecutors and investigators. “I could never forget the magic number that Simeon Marcelo gave me, when I asked him how many investigators they have, ” he said. “He [Marcelo] said 37. Are you kidding?”
This recommendation went unheeded under the term of Gutierrez, according to former Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio. Kwok continued his services under the time of Gutierrez but eventually left.
Aside from more money and more powers, the Ombudsman also needs a stronger judiciary to make its anticorruption efforts effective. “The judiciary is highly inefficient. It takes the courts 6.6 years to conclude a case. It’s one for the Guinness of Records,” he said.
But most important perhaps is the need for the executive branch to respect the independence of the Ombudsman. Kwok lamented that the agency “is sometimes used as a political tool.”
Under the Arroyo government, the Ombudsman was criticized for its slow action on cases, especially those involving close associates of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
For example, Gutierrez filed a case against former agricultural undersecretary Jocelyn “Joc-Joc” Bolante only recently, five years after complaints were filed against the alleged mastermind of the P728-million fertilizer scam.
Gutierrez resigned effective May 6, 2011, and the Judicial and Bar Council will soon begin screening applicants for the position. After this, the council will submit a shortlist to the President, who has until August to appoint Gutierrez’s replacement.
Kwok said President Aquino should appoint “a person with a mission,” and that this mission should include catching “the big fish.”
Aside from deposed president Joseph Estrada, who was convicted of plunder in 2007 but was pardoned after, the Ombudsman has yet to put high-ranking public officials behind bars.
Restore past efforts
Kwok declined to answer questions regarding his work under the term of both Marcelo and Gutierrez, saying that “it’s time to move forward.”
But he noted improvements over the years, such as the signing of a memorandum of understanding on the Solana Covenant between the Commission on Audit, the Civil Service Commission and the Ombudsman in 2004.
The Solana covenant is a joint anticorruption plan that lists the following objectives: the establishment of a database for the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth of public officials and the monitoring of unliquidated cash advances, among others. Newsbreak