Insights and Analysis

Ombudsman Impeachment Trial Tests Aquino’s Anti-Corruption Muscle

March 23, 2011

By Ky D. Johnson

Raising the stakes in the fight against corruption, the Philippine House of Representatives voted this week to impeach the current Ombudsman for betrayal of public trust. Working late into the evening on March 21, the House voted 212 to 46 (with 4 abstaining). This was well in excess of the one-third vote required. While we await the trial in the Senate (conviction will require a two-thirds vote), which will most likely take place during the May 9-June 9 session, this is a good opportunity to see how we arrived at this point.

Actually, the history of anti-corruption initiatives and bodies in the Philippines goes back many decades. A Permanent Commission, empowered to declare whether there was sufficient cause to proceed against high government officials, was created more than a century ago and was included in the Constitution of 1899 (also known as the Malolos Constitution). In 1950, President Elpidio Quirino created an Integrity Board to pursue cases of corruption by public officials. Similar bodies have been in existence ever since. The current leading body, the Office of the Ombudsman, was created by Executive Order in 1987 and enacted by the Philippines Congress in 1989.

In addition to these anti-corruption bodies, presidential pronouncements and efforts to combat graft and corruption have a long history in the Philippines. In his 1946 inaugural address, President Manuel Roxas recognized that “honesty in government is the first essential for the maintenance by the people of faith in its actions.” And President Diosdado Macapagal (father of the immediate past president, now Congresswoman Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo) in his inauguration spoke of five missions of his presidency, the first of which was solving corruption. More recently, the current Philippine President, Benigno Aquino III, vowed in his campaign and his June 2010 inauguration speech to raise the country out of poverty and end corruption. “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap.” “If no one is corrupt, no one will be poor.”

However, inaugural promises and anti-corruption bodies soon collided. At the start of Benigno Aquino’s presidency in July 2010, there were multiple bodies occupying the anti-corruption space. But the Office of the Ombudsman was, and remains, without equal.

President Aquino’s attempt to create a Truth Commission to investigate reports of graft and corruption during his predecessor’s administration (his first Executive Order issued on July 30) was stymied. However, in December 2010, the Supreme Court Justices (all of whom were appointed by former President Arroyo during her tenure – President Aquino has appointed one since taking over), ruled the body unconstitutional. The majority argued that the Truth Commission violated the equal protection clause by targeting only certain political individuals suspected of corruption.

On a separate but related track, the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission (PAGC) was abolished by Executive Order in November 2010 – ostensibly to streamline government bureaucracy. Its responsibilities were transferred to the Office of the Deputy Executive Secretary, bringing them under close control of the Office of the President. PAGC would normally focus on administrative cases against presidential appointees so it isn’t the ideal body for pursuing important cases of graft and corruption, but by abolishing it, the president gave up a potential mechanism.

Thus, short of consolidating all of the various anti-corruption responsibilities into a brand new agency (which would likely require a constitutional change) the president’s best and only hope to fulfill his campaign promises is to have a willing and able Ombudsman.

The Office of the Ombudsman is actually quite powerful. Unlike other countries that have an office or individual who can simply investigate and recommend charges, in the Philippines, the Ombudsman can also prosecute government officials. The constitution provides that the office remain independent from other branches of government and that it maintain fiscal autonomy. And importantly, the Ombudsman and her Deputies serve a fixed term of seven years regardless of changes in political leadership. Unless, of course, an Ombudsman is removed by impeachment.

The current Ombudsman, Attorney Merceditas Navarro-Gutierrez, is perceived by many to be serving the interests of the former president (she was a law school classmate of the former First Gentleman and previously served as President Arroyo’s chief legal counsel) and has been accused of being inactive on a number of high-profile corruption cases. Appointed in 2005, her term runs until November 2012. Efforts to initiate her impeachment in mid-2010 were stopped by the ruling of the Supreme Court, but that was lifted in early 2011 when the Supreme Court allowed the impeachment to proceed and the motion for reconsideration was denied.

Early this month, President Aquino reportedly asked the Liberal Party (which he chairs) to pursue impeachment in the House of Representatives.

With the Supreme Court restriction out of the way, and the full support of the president behind them, the House Committee on Justice conducted hearings and found probable cause to impeach the Ombudsman for betrayal of public trust. A few days later, on March 21, the House voted by a large margin to impeach the Ombudsman. House Resolution 1089 includes six specific articles which will be subsequently considered during a trial in the Senate. Both chambers of Congress will be in recess from March 25 to May 8 so the trial will likely be taken up again during the short, one-month session starting in May.

The impeachment process is both high stakes and high spectacle. This is only the second impeachment trial in post-Marcos Philippines – the first was former President Estrada. The televised hearings of the former president transfixed the nation. When the trial was interrupted by the Senate’s vote not to consider putatively crucial evidence (an envelope), people took to the streets and ousted Estrada in what is known as People Power II. The trial of an Ombudsman is unlikely to be as transfixing, or as game-changing, but it is a significant test of President Aquino’s anti-corruption muscle.

Ky Johnson is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: Good Governance



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