More barriers to access

THE PUBLIC expectations are clear and well-founded. Malacañang under President Benigno Simeon Aquino III will uphold transparency in the conduct of its affairs. And perhaps, too, in the disclosure of documents imbued with public interest, not least of them the Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) of public officials.

Nine months ago, Aquino ran, won, and sealed a “Social Contract with the Filipino People” that promised “transparent, participative, and accountable governance.” His Budget Secretary, Florencio B. Abad, speaking at the Open Government Initiative forum of U.S. President Barack Obama held in Washington, DC, last January, precisely hyped this policy of the Aquino administration.

At that event launching “a global partnership for open governance,” Abad said: “One primary reason why our country has lagged behind our Asian counterparts is that national leadership had been susceptible to patronage, entrenching a culture of concealment, exclusivity and impunity throughout government. This is because official information had been sparse, and the space for people’s participation in governance had been very narrow.”

A key ally of Aquino, Abad might have spoken too soon. Last Monday, the Office of the President put up more barriers to requests for SALNs, paving the way for a more restrictive access to information regime than that which prevailed under former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Last Feb. 8, the PCIJ wrote the Office of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Jr. to request copies of the SALNs of Ombudsman Ma. Merceditas N. Gutierrez and her three predecessors, Simeon V. Marcelo, Aniano A. Desierto, and Conrado M. Vasquez.

It took Ochoa’s office 35 days to respond to the letter. And it did after the PCIJ had filed a second letter and made six follow-up phone calls. The law says government officials must respond within 15 working days to such requests.

Last Monday, Ochoa’s office finally responded in a letter signed by Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Jose Amor M. Amorado.

But the letter was a big damper. In it, Amorado said the PCIJ must first submit copies of its “registration documents (i.e., Securities and Exchange Commission, Bureau of Internal Revenue, Mayor’s Permit), and “an executive summary sufficiently describing the use of the SALNs requested.”

These requirements, according to Amorado, “comply with laws and administrative issuances related to the disclosure of SALNs.”

To be sure, Amorado opened his letter with a cheerful note. “I am pleased to inform you that the data you requested are available for photocopying or reproduction at the Malacañang Records Office – Office of the President.”

The PCIJ promptly phoned the Records Office only to find out that it only has the SALN of Gutierrez as former Justice Secretary and as former presidential legal counsel of Arroyo – or five years before she assumed the post of Ombudsman.

Amorado apparently did not check at all that the PCIJ, in its first letter, requested copies of Gutierrez’s SALN as Ombudsman from 2005 to 2010. It was only in its second letter that the PCIJ sought copies of the SALNs of Gutierrez as Justice secretary and presidential legal counsel.

In earlier queries with Presidential Communications Secretary Ramon ‘Ricky’ Carandang, the PCIJ had learned that the Palace is as clueless as everyone else about the SALNs that Gutierrez filed as Ombudsman.

Last March 13, Carandang wrote the PCIJ.  “I have conferred with Executive Secretary Ochoa about your query. The Office of the President does not have copies of the Ombudsman’s statements of assets and liabilities and net worth. The Ombudsman has not submitted these documents to the OP.” – Malou Mangahas and Karol Anne M. Ilagan, PCIJ, March 2011