New rules that make it more difficult to obtain copies of the financial statements of members of the House of Representatives run counter to the Duterte administration’s policy on transparent government and are a step backward in efforts to engender trust in our public officials.
Under new rules adopted by the House last week, the House plenary has the final say on whether to approve or deny requests for lawmakers’ Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth.
The new rules also require those requesting SALNs to identify themselves and provide a justification for their request, which would be evaluated by a SALN Review and Compliance Committee for approval or rejection.
The House will also charge P300 for each SALN, which means a requesting party would need to pay P87,300 for the SALNs of all 291 lawmakers.
Efforts by House Majority Leader Fredenil Castro said the new rules will prevent fishing expedition—and added ominously that the people’s right to information ends when “you damage someone.”
He also said that the new rules would prevent “unscrupulous people” such as swindlers, syndicates, extortionists and terrorists from obtaining the documents and tampering with them for purposes of blackmail.
Sadly, the only thing transparent in Castro’s defense of the new rules are the bogus reasons for their adoption.
The rationale for transparent government is to make sure our public officials carry out the affairs of state honestly, without diverting public funds to their own bank accounts. The SALN is an essential tool in this exercise, and to that extent, so-called fishing expeditions should be welcome if they uncover wrongdoing. Congressman Castro should know this. After all, a fishing expedition of this sort by his colleagues led to an impeachment complaint against ousted chief justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, which he supported.
The people’s right to know most assuredly does not stop when information proves damaging to a politician—be it an elected lawmaker or an official from the other two branches of government. To say otherwise exhibits an ignorance of how a constitutional democracy should work—or a cynical belief that those in power can short circuit systemic checks and balances.
Finally, the argument that this would keep SALNs out of the hands of swindlers, syndicates, extortionists and terrorists who might doctor the documents for their nefarious purposes is laughable, since any such alterations could be quickly exposed by the simple expedient of comparing them with the originals.
The whole idea that a simple SALN request must pass muster with the House plenary is perhaps the most ridiculous imposition of all, as it suggests that a simple clerical transaction must go through the same process as a piece of legislation.
Reacting to the new House rules, a presidential spokesman said, “We want the SALN to be readily available to the public.” That is a view we can all get behind. There is no call to make the public jump through new hoops for document they have a right to see.”‹