Playing Our Song?

by Juan L. Mercado

“They just  lie  there / And  they die there”. Nat  King Cole crooned  that line, from  the 1950 song  “Mona Lisa”,  into  Grammy’s  Hall  of Fame.  Here, that line describes cases crammed in a semi- paralyzed Ombudsman.

“Deeper than politics, and larger than  individuals, are  institutions,”  cautions Philippine Human Development Report 2009.. “(They) structure human interactions, (specially where) “fundamental  change is needed, but has not occurred.”

PHDR analyzes  the Ombudsman (OMB) and other institutions, politics and their impact of human development. This biennial  study  has  been published since 1990. United Nations Development Programme and New Zealand co-sponsor this latest edition.

The constitution  patterns our  OMB on Sweden’s  ombudsman of 1809.  Independent of  the executive, this official defended  rights of citizens. Scandinavian and other countries adopted  this innovation.

How do we  compare? Over a 12 year period, OMB took cognizance of  9,826  criminal cases. Almost 58 percent are unresolved,  PHDR found. So are  61 percent of 9,033 administrative cases.

President  Gloria  Macapagal Arroyo scoffs  at  claims of  OMB  institutional  rigor mortis . “From  its dismal  past  record, (OMB’s ) conviction   rate  increased  500%,” she declared in  her 2008  State of the Nation  Address.

Credit  Ombudsman  Simeon Marcelo  for that, says PHDR.  From 2002 to 2006,  Marcelo instituted  reforms that  “spilled  over”   After Marcelo’s resignation due to  “ill health”, Ms.  Arroyo  named  the chief  presidential legal counsel  — and First Gentleman’s schoolmate — as Ombudsman

Under  Merceditas Gutierrez,  conviction  rates  slumped  “dramatically  to 14.4 percent by first semester of 2008,” PHDR  noted.  Rates ( dipped ) to as low as 5 percent in March,  then 3 percent in May. It  was zero by June — when Ms  Arroyo’s speechwriters  were drafting  her 2008 Sona.

Did  the presidential  wordsmiths know of OMB’s  rapid erosion? If  not, they should have been cashiered  for incompetence. If they knew, then they stitched  into Sona  a  lie.  That, too, is a firing offense.  Did the President know — and  consent?

Three  months after  Ms  Arroyo’s  Sona,  Sandiganbayan  disposed  of  349 cases. Only  25 resulted  in convictions : a  measly  7 percent. How will she report this  shabby track record  in  next  month’s   Sona?  Abangan.

Led by former  Senate President Jovito Salonga, 31 civil society leaders, meanwhile,  sought to impeach  Ms Gutierrez.  They cited  high profile cases:  from collusion in  bids for World Bank road construction loans to the euro generals scandal.

Controversy over House Resolution  1109 on charter change  froze action on this rap . But  few have illusions. A  Malacanang stamp-pad, the  Lower House will junk this case.  Ms Gutierrez then  joins  Luzviminda Tancangco of Comelec in a grey “honor roll”:  Those  who cases were  never decided  on merit.

“Let her be,” snapped the First Gentleman. “We were not classmates merely  schoolmates,: he added.  “But  let her do her job.”  And she did just that.

“Performance and trust were further undermined by OMB’s action – or inaction – on high profile cases,” PHDR  notes. “These include the P2 billion purchase of  automated counting machines by the Commission on Elections from Mega Pacific for the 2004 elections, the $2 million bribery case involving former Justice Secretary Hernani Perez, the P728 million  fertilizer fund scam and the ($328 ) million NBN-ZTE broadband  deal.”

“The slide in performance and credibility (stems) from the undoing by the incumbent Ombudsman of the  very institutional reforms that previously strengthened the organization,” the report adds.

From 2002 to 2006,  Marcelo  beefed up the OMB’s miniscule staff of 37 to over 100. He cobbled links with civil society and  interfaith groups  while boosting agency funding. Above all, he set the  example.

Public perception of OMB  sincerity  in curbing corruption  climbed  to +28 percent, in  2004,  from the -5 percent,  set by  the distrusted Aniano  Desierto in 2000.  Marcelo resigned, claiming illness. Reports  persisted that  Malacanang leaned  on OMB to favor friends.

Ms Gutierrez, in contrast, systematically stripped  deputy ombudsmen for Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, of cases  involving governors and vice-governors. She re-centralized decisions in herself. About 36 percent of prosecutor’s jobs are vacant.

“Most unfortunate… is her dismantling of the Inter-Agency Graft Coordinating Council, PHDR notes. “OMB  simply did not convene the council.” That shut out  the Commission on Audit and Civil Service Commission.  She also hang  up on critical civil societies.

Public  perception of  OMB’s sincerity in battling corruption   plummeted  to  +4  percent, Social Weather Stations found. This was a nosedive  from the  +28  percent Marcelo set.

Is OMB  burnishing  it’s tattered image? Recently, it  offered to investigate burying of medicine in Pangasinan. Yet, this  agency took  two years to even  read  a World Bank report on  collusion in bid  rigging.

OMB and other constitutional offices play a critical role in maintaining the quality of  governance. Such  agencies  need to be held to a higher standard.

“Are recent changes in OMB driven by partisanship? Or are merely  basic managerial  style differences, even technical incompetence?  “Such a question ideally should not even arise”, PHDR says.  But they do, and  like the “Mona Lisa” song  of 1950, they haunt us.

(E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

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