Restricting access to the Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) of government officials is against the Constitution and the implementing law passed in 1989 when I was a member of the Eighth Congress.
I need to stress the point amid concerns over Memorandum Circular No. 1 Series of 2020 of the Office of the Ombudsman which many find to be a restriction of public access to SALNs.
In the memo-circular uploaded last week on the Ombudsman’s website, it states (under Sec. 1. Grounds to grant or deny request): “A copy of the SALN will be furnished to the requester if: a. he/she is the declarant or the duly authorized representative of the declarant; b. the request is upon lawful order of the court in relation to a pending case; and c. the request is made by this Office’s Field Investigation Office/Bureau/Unit for the purpose of conducting fact-finding investigation.”
The Ombudsman’s memo also states that “no SALN will be furnished to the requester unless he/she presents a notarized letter of authority from the declarant allowing the release of the requested SALN.” The memo further states: “All requests to inspect or to take picture of the SALN will be denied.”
But why restrict access when the laws are clear that SALNs shall be disclosed to the public?
The highest law of the land says so. The Constitution’s Article 11 on Accountability of Public Officers states (in Section 1): “Public office is a public trust. Public officers and employees must at all times be accountable to the people…” and so (in Section 17) “A public officer or employee shall, upon assumption of office and as often thereafter as may be required by law, submit a declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities, and net worth… the declaration shall be disclosed to the public in the manner provided by law.”
And the law referred to is RA 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees which was approved in the Eight Congress in which I was senator.
It is clear in Section 8 of RA 6713 and in its Implementing Rules and Regulations pertaining to “Accessibility of documents” that: “Any and all statements filed under this Act shall be made available for inspection at reasonable hours” and “Such statements shall be made available for copying or reproduction after ten days working days from the time they are filed as required by law.”
The Ombudsman’s memo clearly contravenes RA 6713, particularly on “inspection” and “reproduction or taking picture” of SALNs. I find this anomalous because any memo or even an executive order cannot take precedence over a law passed by Congress.
Aside from provisions in Article 11 of the highest law of the land, also supporting SALN public disclosure is the Constitution’s Article 3, Section 7, which states: “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents, and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”
The importance of such Constitutional provision was explained by the Supreme Court in a 1989 landmark case (Valmonte v. Belmonte Jr.) when it said:
“The cornerstone of this republican system of government is delegation of power by the people to the State. In this system, governmental agencies and institutions operate within the limits of the authority conferred by the people. Denied access to information on the inner workings of government, the citizenry can become prey to the whims and caprices of those to whom the power had been delegated. The postulate of public office is a public trust, institutionalized in the Constitution to protect the people from abuse of governmental power, would certainly be mere empty words if access to such information of public concern is denied….
“The right to information goes hand-in-hand with the constitutional policies of full public disclosure and honesty in the public service. It is meant to enhance the widening role of the citizenry in governmental decision-making as well as in checking abuse in government.”
And in a 2012 ruling, the Supreme Court also explained:
“The incorporation of this right in the Constitution is a recognition of the fundamental role of free exchange of information in a democracy. There can be no realistic perception by the public of the nation’s problems, nor a meaningful democratic decision-making if they are denied access to information of general interest. Information is needed to enable the members of society to cope with the exigencies of the times. As has been aptly observed: ‘Maintaining the flow of such information depends on protection for both its acquisition and its dissemination since, if either process is interrupted, the flow inevitably ceases.’ However, restrictions on access to certain records may be imposed by law.
“Thus, while ‘public concern’ like ‘public interest’ eludes exact definition and has been said to embrace a broad spectrum of subjects which the public may want to know, either because such matters directly affect their lives, or simply because such matters naturally arouse the interest of an ordinary citizen, the Constitution itself, under Section 17, Article XI, has classified the information disclosed in the SALN as a matter of public concern and interest. In other words, a ‘duty to disclose’ sprang from the ‘right to know.’ Both of constitutional origin, the former is a command while the latter is a permission. Hence, the duty on the part of members of the government to disclose their SALNs to the public in the manner provided by law.”
Amid all the reasons why SALN disclosure is necessary, here’s what I find most compelling: With rampant corruption believed to be costing the Filipino people a staggering P700 billion a year, the all-important SALN ought to be a very effective tool to substantially minimize theft of public funds.