Sanctum sanctorum?

AS FORMER Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo tells it, he had implemented the tight security system at the Office because he had found out that some lawyers who used to work there were involved in ‘fixing’ cases. They would even meet up at the Office’s Quezon City headquarters to do their dirty deeds, he recounts.

So Marcelo had closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras installed, which he says later helped in stopping these former employees from continuing with their illegal deals. Some of these lawyers were even banned from the Office unless they had a scheduled hearing, he says.

But part of the system also entails getting a specific security pass for each floor. This means, says lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno, someone with transactions to conduct in several floors has to keep going back to the front desk to secure a new pass every time his or her business at one level is finished.

It’s simply not a system that would encourage people to file complaints especially when security personnel are all over the Office, the lawyer observes. He even describes the security at the Ombudsman as tighter than in Malacañang.

This causes delay, says Diokno. For instance, filing a counter-affidavit at a regular prosecutor’s office should be a simple task and not take any longer than 15 minutes. At the Ombudsman, Diokno says that it took him and a client one hour to file a counter-affidavit.

A complainant’s travails do not end there, however. The human-rights group Karapatan, for example, finds no comfort in the fact that the Ombudsman is relatively close to its own office. Karapatan secretary-general Marie Hilao-Enriquez says that from experience, they have learned that follow-ups are not allowed at the Office. “Kasi ang nakalagay talaga doon, ‘No follow-up’ di ba? (Because it’s written there, ‘No follow-up,’ right?),” she says.

And so they wait. And wait. According to Hilao-Enriquez, except for a case that was dismissed for lack of evidence, the group is still waiting for news of any kind on cases it helped file at the Ombudsman five years ago.

Procerfina Lucban, meanwhile, has already become a familiar face at the Central Records Division of the Office of the Ombudsman, even though the complaint she helped file in 2004 resulted in a decision in 2006 and now has led to pending court cases. But Lucban wants the Ombudsman to enforce its order on the provincial government, which should have dismissed two of the employees the Office had found guilty of grave misconduct, among other things, four years ago. Determined to see them out of public service, Lucban has taken to enduring a day or more riding a motorcycle from her hometown in Samar to go to the Ombudsman’s Office to get updates on the complaint.

So far, her visits haven’t yielded her much information. The mother of four says that Ombudsman personnel would usually only tell her that the case is “active” with no other details. But perhaps because of her incessant questioning, there was at least one instance when she says an Ombudsman employee resorted to showing her piles of documents to indicate that it was not sitting on cases.

Then there’s Danilo Reyes, who was glad to find out that the complaint he filed four months prior had already been assigned to an investigator. His mood changed, though, when a Public Assistance Bureau (PAB) official later asked him if he would be open to a mediation to resolve the case.

Reyes had filed a complaint against Land Transportation Office (LTO) employees for alleged “fraudulent” acts last March. A workers’ union member, he says that he wants the Ombudsman to decide on the case and not to mediate.

It may still be too early to tell what James Lumi-ib’s experience with the Ombudsman would be, but the 42-year-old says that he and 10 other complainants from Tubo, Abra are pinning their hopes on the Office in their quest for justice.

Using a Commission on Audit report as evidence, Lumi-ib and company had filed a complaint against 11 municipal officials for alleged corrupt practices in several road projects. That was last May. A month after, Lumi-ib traveled from Abra to Quezon City again to check on their complaint; only to learn that it had yet to be assigned a docket number.

In a written reply to PCIJ’s queries, Assistant Ombudsman Jose de Jesus, Jr. says that the Office entertains those filing requests through the PAB. “We assist them in following-up their cases in the Office,” he says. “We give assistance to everybody as long as they are party to the case. We give suggestions to those who want to know the status of the case but they are not a party to the said case.”

He adds that there are requirements that have to be met every time someone wants want to request a case update. One, the person requesting the information must be a party to the case. Otherwise, he or she has to bring an authorization coming from the party concerned. Two, the requesting party must fill up a request for assistance form indicating the title and number of the case.

De Jesus says the PAB Officer of the Day will then check the status of the case with the Records Division and, usually the Records Division gives the following status, such as: “still pending with the investigator,” “already submitted to the Director/Assistant Ombudsman,” or “the case is with Higher Officials.”

He also says there is no fixed period in the investigation of cases or complaints because of the various factors involved, such as the complexity of the allegations, the volume of evidence required, and the number of public officials/employees accused. He says that simple cases may take around five to six months to accomplish, while complex cases may take longer since the Office observes the policy of filing cases where the evidence is strong enough to secure conviction.

“Ombudsman investigations are always aimed at presenting a strong case so our inquiries are always in-depth,” says de Jesus. “Although the standard of proof in fact-finding is only probable cause, the FIO (Field Investigation Office) investigators always aim at proof beyond reasonable doubt, or, in an administrative case, preponderance or substantial evidence. The reason behind this is to increase the chances of conviction of an offender.” – PCIJ, February 2011