In ordering a stop to the conduct of lifestyle checks on public officials, Ombudsman Samuel Martires told Congress on Tuesday his office does not need the officials’ Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) to investigate them for corruption, and that the document itself could be weaponized against them.
Fielding questions during the hearing of the Ombudsman's proposed budget for 2021, Martires told congressmen: “Failure in such (lifestyle check) does not prove than an official is corrupt.”
The law that covers lifestyle check on public officials is “illogical" and should be amended, Martires added.
The former Supreme Court justice also floated the idea of just abolishing the body, as he said a shortage in witnesses against corrupt officials has stumped investigations by the Office of the Ombudsman.
“When I assumed office, I suspended the conduct of lifestyle checks because I have long doubted the provision of the law about it. I want to propose to Congress the amendments to Republic Act 6713 because the provisions there, malabo (are hazy), defies logic,” Martires said.
“Why did I stop it? What is living beyond your means? The one earning P50,000 a month, lives in a small house, was able to save, bought a BMW on a promo at zero interest, with installment payments he can easily pay, is he living beyond his means? I don’t think so. What he has are distorted values and distorted priorities,” he added.
RA 6713, or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials, provides that public officials and employees and their families “shall lead modest lives appropriate to their positions and income” and that “they should not indulge in extravagant or ostentatious display of wealth in any form.”
Martires commented on lifestyle checks a few weeks after he restricted public access to SALNs of government employees filed with theOmbudsman.
“Why should we be so concerned? Why judge somebody who bought a BMW although his house has no parking space? Why should be we be so concerned about the lives of others so long as they do not steal?” he said.
“We have to redefine what is living beyond your means. What is simple living to me may not be simple living to you or anyone,” Martires stressed.
RA 6713 also mandates disclosure of SALNs to the public at a certain period of time, and that the requesting party shoulders the cost of reproduction and mailing of the SALN copies.
But Martires said a SALN does not have use in the prosecution of a graft case.
“In the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, the SALN is not needed to prove undue injury, undue advantage, even plunder,” he said.
“For what purposed is SALN (used? The SALN is only used to cast aspersions on government officials,” Martires added.
Martires was an associate justice of the Supreme Court when he was
tapped by President Rodrigo Duterte to be the Ombudsman.
In May 2018, Martires voted to oust then-Chief Justice Maria Loudes Sereno for her failure to meet the integrity requirement for members of the judiciary, including her failure to file her SALN for several years.
The Department of Budget and Management approved a budget of P3.7 billion for the Office of the Ombudsman in 2021.
As for abolishing the Office of the Ombudsman, Martires cited as an example the speculations of corruption at the Bureau of Customs, where investigators "cannot gather enough evidence because nobody would like to testify."
Brokers "will protect their business" and "will not come out in the open and accuse this particular collector of Customs of being corrupt," he said.
“We can't arrest anyone because even the ones complaining are afraid. Nothing will happen to us that way. As I said, perhaps we should just abolish the Office of the Ombudsman if this continues,” Martires said.
Charges are often filed against "small employees" while the "big fishes" remain free, he added.
“Perhaps, so that there will be no problem anymore, each agency should just have its own anti-corruption program. Just abolish the Office of the Ombudsman so that the government will also have less expenses,” he said.
“Once the Office of the Ombudsman is abolished, perhaps abolish the Sandiganbayan (special anti-graft court), too. Just use their funds to build houses for the poor,” Martires said.
He also advised accusers of corruption against government officials to be prepared to testify.
“If you do not want to surface and testify, just keep quiet. You are just mongering rumors,” he said.