Access to information rigmarole

Mercy high profile on media,
Ombudsman stingy with data

Third of Four Parts

ANIANO DESIERTO, the country’s second Ombudsman, used to be a broadcast newsman, but current chief graftbuster Merceditas N. Gutierrez has turned out to be more of a media creature than he ever was. She has been, in fact, a “tri-media personality,” running a personal column in a business daily, even as she co-hosted a radio show and a TV program on state-run media.

It may then not be far-fetched to assume that she and the agency that she heads would be more forthcoming than other government officials and institutions on information requested by the public or at the very least the media. Besides, as “protector of the people,” the Ombudsman’s Office is supposed to lead government in promoting transparency, efficiency, and quality of service to all citizens.

Indeed, just two years ago, the Office of the Ombudsman launched a Citizen’s Charter that it said was aimed at providing simple and user-friendly step-by-step guides on how to avail of services from the anti-graft agency. Gutierrez herself said that the Charter is intended “to provide meaningful, responsive, and relevant service by OMB personnel.”

In addition, Gutierrez has devoted big sums to communication projects that are designed to put the Ombudsman on high-profile mode and to allow the agency to engage citizens.

Yet while all procedures on accessing the Ombudsman’s key frontline services are spelled out on paper, actual experiences by some complainants, lawyers, and journalists reveal a side of the Office that is not very accessible and responsive to citizens’ needs. (See Sidebar, Sanctum sanctorum?)

Even if the right to information is guaranteed by the 1987 Constitution and affirmed by the judiciary, getting public documents – as well as information regarding submitted requests or complaints — from the Office of the Ombudsman can be a true test of patience.

For this four-part series, for instance, the PCIJ encountered an agency that was insistent on corresponding via snail mail, a manner that seemed impractical for an institution equipped with telephones and Internet. The Office of the Ombudsman also seemed to be oblivious of Section 5 of Republic Act No. 6713 or the “Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees” that says, “All public documents must be made accessible to, and readily made for inspection by, the public within reasonable working hours.”

Last year, the PCIJ requested four types of data from the Ombudsman: the Office’s caseload statistics from 1999 to 2010, its 2009 annual report, copies of complaints and resolutions, and a summary list of the complaints it received from 2004 to 2010.

All four requests took one to three months before they were fully addressed.

Two of these requests were granted eventually, including the one for copies of complaints and resolutions. According to the Office, however, only copies of complaints that were disposed of and copies of resolutions that had been the subject of review and final action of Ombudsman Gutierrez may be provided after payment of reproduction fees. There were no electronic copies available. The PCIJ thus decided not to proceed with the request because of the high cost photocopying would entail.

The rest of PCIJ’s requests were denied because the data being sought turned out to be something the Office did not – and still doesn’t – have.

The PCIJ first wrote a request to the Ombudsman on June 2, 2010 for a copy of its 2009 annual report and details on the workload and status of cases. Follow-up calls were made and the PCIJ was told that the “letter has already been forwarded for action.”

About three weeks later, a letter from the Office came via post. Far from containing the requested data, though, the letter dated June 7, 2010 simply acknowledged receipt of the request, prompting PCIJ to launch another round of follow-up calls. But when asked about updates on the request, the staff personnel at the Ombudsman would reply with a question: Have you received a letter from us already?

Another letter came on August 5 that said the request for the workload and status of cases had been forwarded to the Office’s Central Records Division and the request for the 2009 annual report to the Finance and Administrative Office.

By then, the PCIJ had clocked a month waiting for the data it had requested, all basic information that the Office should have. Finally, Central Records Division (CRD) chief Dominga Barasi, speaking to PCIJ via phone, said that the data used in the Ombudsman’s annual reports (which are uploaded online) are the only statistical data approved for dissemination.

Meanwhile, a staff personnel at the Finance and Administrative Office even asked PCIJ to send her a copy of the reply it got from her own Office. The PCIJ found out later that the 2009 annual report was not yet available and would not be released until October 2010. The Office, however, managed to provide PCIJ a copy by September 22.

Rigmarole again

The PCIJ went through a similar rigmarole with its request for the summary list of the complaints filed with the Office – and with even less success. An acknowledgment letter was first sent by the Office, followed by another indicating which office the request was forwarded to. Just the same, no information was provided because the Office, according to Barasi, does not keep a record or a summary of all the complaints it receives.

Here’s the thing: the annual reports do provide plenty of information, but data here must have come from another set of data that the Office holds. For instance, the annual reports indicate the number of cases acted upon by the Office as well as the dismissal and conviction rates for the year. One may assume thus that the Office must have a list of cases it is handling to arrive at these numbers. Or, it could have detailed information entered into its docketing system for case tracking. (According to former Ombudsman Simeon V. Marcelo, the Office first started using a docketing system during his term.)

Then again, this is the same Office that said in its 2009 annual report that its Central Records Division has “scanned and uploaded around 40,000 SALNs,” a measure initiated to improve records management of the documents. The report did not indicate where the SALNs (Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth) were uploaded but these are not to be found in the Ombudsman’s web site.

Digitizing the SALN and uploading them in a website for public use could save both the Ombudsman and the requesting party plenty of time. It seems ironic though that in 2009 as well the Office released its revised guidelines governing access to SALNs filed with the Ombudsman requiring several documents from requesting parties.

Dangerous disclosure?

The Ombudsman launched in 2009 what it calls the Citizen’s Charter – a 37-page document on the procedures and timelines for citizens who wish to avail themselves of the Office’s help, i.e. file a complaint or pleading, or to request information on the status of a case or a copy of a public official’s SALN.

According to the Citizen’s Charter, a request for SALNs (2003 to present) following the new process shall take one hour. Yet while bureaucratic layers have been diminished in the new process, the new requirements may pose difficulties for ordinary citizens especially those who do not have these ready or for those residing far from the Ombudsman’s Offices.

Before, it was enough for journalists at least to just write a letter of request for SALNs, subject to the approval of the Ombudsman. Now, requests are filed with the Public Assistance Bureau where citizens are required to accomplish a two-page form, present at least two government-issued IDs with photo and signature, an authorization letter and/or special power of attorney for representatives, and a valid community tax certificate. The requesting party must also certify under oath that he or she will abide by the undertaking stated in the prescribed form before any prosecutor of the Ombudsman.

The revised guidelines, set in Memorandum Circular No. 01, Series of 2009, state that while the Office of the Ombudsman is willing to furnish copies of the SALN, the reason for the request must be legitimate. The reasons accepted by the Office as legitimate are: when the requested SALN is needed in school for study purposes; when the same is to be disseminated to the general public by news and communication media; or, upon a court subpoena duly signed by a presiding judge in a pending criminal case or in the case of another quasi-judicial agency, upon request personally signed by its authorized officer or representative.

The memo further states that the revised guidelines are adopted because the Office is “cognizant of the fact that in other times, the request is made under circumstances which may endanger, diminish, or destroy the independence and objectivity of the Office of the Ombudsman and its officials in the performance of their quasi-judicial functions or expose them to revenge for adverse decisions.”

No Mercy interview

But if PCIJ had problems securing official data from the Ombudsman, it would have worse luck with its requests for face-to-face interviews with the agency’s officials, including the Ombudsman herself.

PCIJ sent at least three letters requesting an interview with Gutierrez in particular, but she ignored them all, including the last one sent last Jan. 20 asking her to just comment in writing – in her own words and not through her deputies.

In that letter, the PCIJ wrote Gutierrez: “On June 29, 2010, Ms Karol Anne M. Ilagan, PCIJ Research Director, sent you a letter of request for an interview… (on) the accomplishments of the Office of the Ombudsman. She did not get any feedback from your office at all.”

PCIJ had written another interview request to Gutierrez on Aug. 5. This time, an Ombudsman’s media officer asked PCIJ to send a list of its questions. These questions for Gutierrez were then sent on Aug. 10, and additional ones, on Aug. 24.

On Sept. 22, the PCIJ received consolidated responses to its questions from the office of Assistant Ombudsman Jose de Jesus, Jr. The PCIJ sent a request for clarifications on this reply on Sept. 27. De Jesus replied in writing on Oct. 18.

But the PCIJ wanted Gutierrez to respond, saying in its Jan. 20 letter, “You will please appreciate the earnest and diligent efforts of the PCIJ to give you ample opportunities to air your side in our story. Nonetheless, it would seem truly important for you to respond yourself to the questions that the PCIJ has pitched to the Office of the Ombudsman… in the spirit of transparency and accountability.”

The Ombudsman requested a few more days to send its reply, assuring PCIJ that Gutierrez herself would respond. A reply did come via email, with 20 attachments, on Jan. 24. The signature it bore, however, was that of Assistant Ombudsman Evelyn A. Baliton.

Columnist, TV host

In truth, while Gutierrez has assumed command of media platforms that allow her to air the Ombudsman’s side, she has typically refused to answer testy questions pitched by media. Too often, Gutierrez assigns her deputies to speak for the Office, even as she continues to write a weekly column and is set to resume playing TV program host three days in the week.

Since 2008, she has been writing “The Essential Truth” column in the newspaper Business Mirror every Friday. She agreed to turn columnist – without honorarium – on invitation of publisher Antonio Cabangon Chua, one of the incorporators of the First Gentleman Foundation that Jose Miguel ‘Mike’Arroyo, husband of then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, organized in 2006. Her latest posting last Feb. 3 brings Gutierrez’s body of work to a total of 116 columns, which her Ombudsman staff are supposed to move by mail every Thursday, her deadline, to the newspaper’s editorial team.

Until 2009, she had also co-anchored the “Magsumbong sa Ombudsman (Report to the Ombudsman)” program every Wednesday, from 10 to 11 a.m., over DZRB Radyo ng Bayan and its provincial stations nationwide.

In addition, from Dec. 2009 to Dec. 25, 2010, Gutierrez co-hosted the program “Ombudsman: Kakampi Mo Laban Sa Katiwalian (Ombudsman: Your Ally Against Corruption)” every Saturday, 12 noon to 1 p.m., on government-run National Broadcasting Network (NBN) Channel 4. But she lamented in her column last Dec. 16 that the network had “cut off the broadcast of the remaining two segments of our TV program… purportedly because our office did not have an MOA (memorandum of agreement) with them (NBN).”

Blocktimer next?

“Truth is, we do have,” she said, “and so the new station head must have another reason – the real one that is hidden – for having done what he did. I am now asking him to explain why he did it.”

The PCIJ has learned that NBN eventually recognized the existence of a MOA and aired the last two episodes of Gutierrez’s program last Christmas. Under this MOA, the Ombudsman carried the “minimal” production cost (honoraria for camera team, writers, and producer; and supplies, etc.), while the network carried the airtime cost.

A new MOA is being negotiated for the Ombudsman to renew its contract, this time as blocktimer – meaning, it will carry all the airtime and production costs. At NBN4’s current rate cards, a blocktimer could corner an hour of non-primetime hours for about P50,000, and primetime hours, for a little more.

To be fair, many of her newspaper columns have offered quick lessons on the work of the Ombudsman and laws on corruption.

But Gutierrez has also meandered into topics personal and remotely related to her Office’s work, using the space to ponder about such things as “Balikbayan boxes,” “the mystery of salvation,” and “reflections on the feast of all saints.”

Aside from Gutierrez, only seven other incumbent public officials, most of them holding elective positions, are writing columns. Five of the seven write for The Manila Bulletin, the sixth for the tabloid Abante, and the seventh, occasionally, for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Baring more

But she has also used it to reveal more details about certain critical cases. “So far as I could recall,” she said in her Feb. 27, 2009 column, “people began judging me as incompetent and a failure at my job when they were shocked to know that I did not file any criminal case against then COMELEC (Commission on Elections) chair Benjamin Abalos. People criticized me by saying crimes were committed but there were no criminals; that everybody knew Abalos was guilty and only I did not know of it.”

Gutierrez bared more: “When we were deliberating on the Abalos case, and we were stunned to realize ourselves that there was really no case against him, a close adviser reminded me to ‘do justice, though the heavens fall!’ It was hard to go against public sentiment which had already prejudged the man guilty; but it was so much harder to charge him formally in court when the facts we found were more consistent with his innocence than with his guilt.”

The column has served as her virtual wailing wall – and a podium to lash out at her critics. The Feb. 27, 2009 column was even called “The criticisms we endure” and had Gutierrez lamenting, “Over recent days, some people, who include Jose Cuisia of the Coalition Against Corruption, have called for my resignation for various reasons ranging from incompetence to failing (to) do my job as Ombudsman. But their calls are baseless. At the risk of sounding defensive, the truth is that I am doing my job. When I stepped into office in December 2005, I inherited from my various predecessors almost 21,000 unresolved cases. Of these I have today been able to resolve almost 20,000.”

“For a year or two into my new office, the media crucified us for a low conviction rate,” she continued. “But the cases we lost during those days referred to cases filed before my time. Today, we are very careful in filing cases. We make sure we have real chances of winning them.”

“It is the lot of somebody in my position to suffer undue criticisms and hurtful innuendoes,” Gutierrez also said. “It is part of our job to endure them. And endurance makes one stronger.”

Interestingly, a communications expert who has helped conduct briefing and training sessions for the Ombudsman notes that “a sense of persecution” permeates the Office so much that any scrutiny of its work by the media or critics seems simply insufferable to Gutierrez and her deputies.

This attitude, says the expert, hampers the Office’s efforts to explain itself, and makes the agency “a difficult product to sell.”

“They were complaining about the biased perceptions of the public, that they don’t have talents who could serve as spokespersons,” the expert adds. “They said they are working so hard but the people do not seem to appreciate this.” – PCIJ, February 2011