Conchita Carpio-Morales

Just give it to the Ombudsman

My unsolicited advice to a couple of friends – one who works in the Palace and another who writes a popular column – was for them to recommend to the President to turn over the whole Puno event to the Ombudsman. That way the President will not be accused of a whitewash if an internal investigation finds groundless the allegations against former DILG undersecretary Rico Puno. Anyway, they think I’m nuts to begin with so they dismissed my suggestion outright. Hopefully, you won’t.

In the US, a Special Prosecutor is named whenever there is an issue that requires independent investigation. That was done in Nixon’s Watergate and several other gates. Neat, right? Except that in the US, the appointment of a special prosecutor is a highly politicized weapon used by both political parties against each other. Normally, it is the party out of the White House that calls for special prosecutors to investigate allegations against members of the Executive. It is rare when there is a bi-partisan call for one.

We don’t have that problem in this country. The framers of our constitution were wise enough to create an independent constitutional office, the Office of the Ombudsman, with the following powers, functions, and duties:

Article XI Sec. 13 of the Constitution:

The Office of the Ombudsman shall have the following powers, functions, and duties:

1. Investigate on its own, or on complaint by any person, any act or omission of any public official, employee, office or agency, when such act or omission appears to be illegal, unjust, improper, or inefficient.
2. Direct, upon complaint or at its own instance, any public official or employee of the Government, or any subdivision, agency or instrumentality thereof, as well as of any government-owned or controlled corporation with original charter, to perform and expedite any act or duty required by law, or to stop, prevent, and correct any abuse or impropriety in the performance of duties.
3. Direct the officer concerned to take appropriate action against a public official or employee at fault, and recommend his removal, suspension, demotion, fine, censure, or prosecution, and ensure compliance therewith.
4. Direct the officer concerned, in any appropriate case, and subject to such limitations as may be provided by law, to furnish it with copies of documents relating to contracts or transactions entered into by his office involving the disbursement or use of public funds or properties, and report any irregularity to the Commission on Audit for appropriate action.
5. Request any government agency for assistance and information necessary in the discharge of its responsibilities, and to examine, if necessary, pertinent records and documents.
6. Publicize matters covered by its investigation when circumstances so warrant and with due prudence.
7. Determine the causes of inefficiency, red tape, mismanagement, fraud, and corruption in the Government and make recommendations for their elimination and the observance of high standards of ethics and efficiency.
8. Promulgate its rules of procedure and exercise such other powers or perform such functions or duties as may be provided by law.
If we have a credible Ombudsman, like the one we have now, then the sort of congressional probe that Sen. Miriam Santiago held last Friday will be seen for what it is: nothing more than epal, the slang for self-promotion by politicians at taxpayer’s expense.

Here’s Miriam doing some self-promotion in a Tweet several days before her hearing:

“There will be a lot of sound and fury. There will be a lot of sound from Mr. Puno and maybe a lot of fury from me.” (http://t.co/HDgSSQFe) Was she promoting the Bourne Legacy? Dispensing viagra to our sensationalist media?

Here is more of her teasing in a press interview: “Maybe the president is not defending Mr. Puno, but is just trying to assuage or protect the backers of Usec. Puno.” Asked to name the backers, she replied, “Now, I can’t because I may be accused of unfair allegations without any evidence.” More viagra for reporters and politicians who are always looking for someone to screw.

Previous presidents, Fidel Ramos and Gloria Arroyo, appointed controversial ombudsmen. Their appointees were seen as their personal bodyguards against prosecution. Consequently, the public did not give any credibility to their work.

But that’s not the case with Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales. She proved her independence as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Her legal acumen plus her independence are beyond reproach. She is nobody’s protector. She ain’t nobody’s fool. That’s why on July 11, 2011 the Daan Matuwid president appointed her to serve as Ombudsman. She will serve until 2018, two years after he steps down from office, enough time for her to go after him if he commits any crime during his incumbency. That proves the president had no self-interest in mind when he appointed her.

Consequently, Ombudsman Carpio-Morales is the right person to look into the allegations against Puno, any member of the Cabinet, and anyone else perceived to have close personal ties to the president, not only because that’s her constitutional mandate but more importantly because she has the credibility to do it.

The President could have saved himself a lot of flak from politicians and media if he had simply announced, “I’ve turned the papers over to the Ombudsman. I await her findings and will respect whatever action she may decide to take. If you have any questions, go see her. Now let me get back to work.”

Trust me on this one, Mr. President.

A Clear but Erroneous Message

In his second state of the nation address, President Aquino traded his old nuanced style in favor of a crisper, cleaner form of delivery, but was it accurate?

It was a speech aimed at the public rather than the pundits. In the past, when seeking to convey his mastery of a subject, Pres Aquino or PNoy would often get lost in the detail of the topic at hand. Whether it was in dealing with the security issues after the January bomb blast or whether it had to do with the specifics of his budget.

Not this time. It was not that his speech was short on specifics. In his nearly hour-long address, the president covered everything from our recent credit upgrades to the US State Department’s downgrading of us in their watchlist of countries involved in human-trafficking, from light monorail to mosquito larvae and coconut coils.

What distinguishes this speech from previous ones is the unifying theme that threaded the whole piece, which was the narrative concerning his crusade against corruption. The appropriately coined term “wang-wang mentality” (so called for the unauthorized use of wang-wangs or sirens symbolic of the sense of entitlement by the powerful enclaves of society) was used as a rhetorical device to sharpen the focus of his theme.

The president spoke of progress in this effort yielding tangible benefits to our economy. He noted the rise of stock prices, the reduction of our rice imports, the decline of poverty and the growth of employment. He attributed these developments to the changes he has made in the running of state agencies from the highy impervious public works department to the grandiosely caffeinated Philippine gaming corporation where he claimed wasteful spending was brought to heel.

Inconvenient Truths

Some analysts have pointed out that the improvement of rice production that led to a lower demand for imports came more as a result of better weather conditions than anything else, and that the reduction of poverty in April came after a jump in January. To this I might add, that the growth in employment is simply unremarkable given the past ten years, and that even with a slight decline in unemployment, the twin problems of high underemployment and low productivity (a result of lesser jobs being created in manufacturing) still prevails.

These of course are the nuances that I said were left out of the equation. These facts were conveniently swept away because they did not fit into the overarching narrative arc of the president’s speech, nor did it fit in with the upbeat “vibe” that he was trying to project.

If we look at the substance and purpose of the speech, which is supposedly the setting of the president’s legislative priorities, we find that in a speech of 5,989 words, the president devoted 116 of them to his proposed measures. That is about 1.9% of the text. He went through his proposals so quickly, that he even failed to give a proper justification for them or a rationale for how these priorities fit within his broad agenda.

No apologies

In a manner of speaking, this was a “no apologies” speech. The president did not report on the state of his much vaunted PPPs or public private partnerships which was the centerpiece of his first SONA, nor did he ask Congress to pursue legislation that would improve its implementation.

After pointing out that

(a)ccording to the BIR, we have around 1.7 million self-employed and professional taxpayers: lawyers, doctors, businessmen who paid a total of 9.8 billion pesos in 2010. This means that each of them paid only an average of 5,783 pesos in income tax—and if this is true, then they each must have earned only 8,500 pesos a month, which is below the minimum wage. I find this hard to believe

he then failed to announce any reforms that would ensure a greater contribution of these privileged few to the national treasury in keeping with his no new taxes pledge which the Movement for Good Governance scored him poorly for.

The president also made no apologies for the slowdown of the economy in the first quarter of the year. Instead, he stuck to his narrative contrasting his righteous way with that of his predecessor. Buoyed by the recent string of whistle-blowers and his new-found ally in the newly designated Ombudsman, he did not hesitate to talk down the opposition or to entreat everyone to praise the “good deeds” of his government.

The president adeptly avoided confrontation with two important but some would say wayward institutions. Having bruised the egos of church leaders in the RH debate as well as the PCSO “cars for clergy” scandal, he diplomatically offered an olive branch to the Catholic bishops who were in the audience. He also made sure to gain the support of the military and the police through his procurement of defense assets and provision of low-cost housing.

He clearly did not want to get side-tracked from his simple narrative that his anti-corruption drive would bring about national development. He even found a way to weave the protection of our sovereignty to his good government agenda.

The need for nuance

The sharpening of the edges around this vision of a nation free of the wang-wang mentality and the personalization of this vision as pronounced by PNoy himself was crafted to appeal to the broader sections of his audience. The president was railing against the very government he led. He spoke as an outsider, as an insurgent much like the late former US president Ronald Reagan who saw it as his task to fight the menace of “big government” or more contemporaneously of British PM David Cameron who seeks to displace it with a “big society”.

If you agree with his thesis that corruption prevents growth, then there will be much in the SONA to cheer about. If on the other hand, you consider the empirical as well as historic evidence that corruption per se is not the culprit, but rather the lack of a coherent bureaucracy around a national development project, then you will recognize the effectiveness of myth-making in public speeches.

Indeed if you believe the former, then everything is fine and dandy. But if you believe the latter, then the lack of substance or clarity on how the government intends to reverse the dangerous trend in our employment mix through some kind of industry or tax policy with the stalling of the government’s major investment strategy means that when the favorable conditions turn sour, as they most certainly will, we are in for a rude awakening somewhere down the track.

One of the best public speakers in his day was George W Bush. He was able to rally his people behind a clean, crisp message against the “evil doers”. He left the incovenient truths and nuances of intelligence out of public debate. Ten years later, we find the repercussions both strategically and economically of this form of “messaging” that have mired his country in a highly polarized debate over the national debt.

The need to speak clearly is one thing, but the need to speak more factually is another. Hopefully in the future, the president’s communications and strategy team will be able to craft a message that marries the two.

The joke is on us!

The Supreme Court ruling favoring former Marcos crony Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, Jr. demonstrates that kleptocracy is alive and well in the country.

As economist Cielito Habito will tell you, coconut farmers not rice farmers constitute the poorest of the poor in the Philippines. They also account for a larger bulk of the farming sector (whether you account for this on the basis of land area cultivated or number of individuals engaged in it). Improving their lot in life therefore should be on top of any poverty alleviation agenda.

Under Martial Law between 1972 and 1982, coconut farmers were burdened with a levy that was meant to be used for upgrading common facilities and infrastructure that would ultimately benefit the sector. The man in charge of what essentially could be regarded a monopoly was businessman Danding Cojuangco, an estranged cousin of the jailed opposition leader’s Benigno Aquino, Jr’s wife (mother of the current president who incidentally reconciled with his uncle prior to his election).

What did Mr Cojuangco do with the immense powers and resources entrusted to him? Well, he claims to have “borrowed” the funds from the United Coconut Planters Bank, an entity bought using the coco levy funds, to purchase a 20% stake in San Miguel Corporation, one of the biggest conglomerates in the country. So rather than going to the poorest of the poor, the funds were allocated to benefit the corporate and financial ambitions of the man whose responsibility it was to look out for their welfare.

Did he violate his duties not just as a public official in charge of the stewardship of their funds but as a corporate officer of the bank from where he had sourced his “loan”? The Supreme Court in a split decision seems to believe that he didn’t. This is despite the financial regulations that we have regarding banks lending a substantial amount of their funds to directors, officers, stakeholders and related interests.

Under normal circumstances, such an inequitable and imprudent decision by a public and corporate official would not have been condoned. Such a blatant disregard for the interests of those whose toil produced the resources would have only been possible under a dictatorship. It is that action that the Supreme Court has legitimized with its ruling.

Although the decision is still subject to a possible motion for reconsideration, if it were to stand, it would probably be one of the biggest transfers of wealth from the poorest and lowliest members of society to one of the wealthiest. It would be proof positive that kleptocracy is alive and well in a nation that has produced two among the top ten most corrupt leaders in modern history.

As Senior Associate Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales (who administered the oath of office to the current president) states in her dissenting opinion,

The argument that Cojuangco was not a subordinate or close associate of the Marcoses is the biggest joke to hit the century.

If that is so, then the joke is well and truly on us!