Following the issuance of the memorandum circular by the Office of the Ombudsman that limits access to the statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALN) of public officials, the 30-year tradition of Philippine president’s public disclosure of wealth is shattered.
The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) bared that the Ombudsman had repeatedly rebuffed requests to obtain President Rodrigo Duterte’s SALN in 2018 and 2019, claiming that it was still revising the guidelines for public access to SALNs.
In the past, the president’s SALN should have been made public within ten days from the day it was filed.
PCIJ said that it had also requested the Office of the President to release Duterte’s SALN on June 21, 2019, and followed up repeatedly.
In response, the Palace told them to ask a copy from the Ombudsman. PCIJ’s request was tossed back and forth between the Ombudsman and the Office of the President, and with the issuance of the circular, Duterte’s SALN is now essentially hidden from the public.
In a story published last year, the PCIJ revealed that Duterte’s wealth increased from less than P1 million in 1998, when he was still the mayor of Davao City, to nearly P29 million in 2017, a year after he became president.
PCIJ also reported “big spikes” in the wealth of the president’s children, Sara and Paolo, based on their SALNs.
Reacting to the story, Duterte, who promised a more transparent government when he took office in 2016, said: “What we earned outside is none of your business actually,” he said during a public event in April last year. “Yung may mga negosyo kami, mga law office kami — what the goddamn sh*t?”
Throughout the world, wealth disclosures are seen as an important anti-corruption tool.
“The requirement that public officials declare their income and assets can help deter the use of public office for private gain. Income and asset disclosure systems can provide a means to detect and manage potential conflicts of interest, and can assist in the prevention, detection, and prosecution of illicit enrichment by public officials,” said the World Bank.
Law professor Antonio La Viña added that SALN serves as a tool for transparency as well as prosecution as the law allows for lifestyle checks.
The wealth record offers a way to make sure that officials “do not benefit, do not increase their wealth because of their work (in government).” Through the SALN, one can track the way officials’ wealth changed over the years when they were in power.
La Viña warned that restricting SALN access to the media might increase impunity among corrupt officials. Before, corrupt officials hid illicit wealth or did not put it in their SALNs. Now, given access restrictions, they will be able to avoid scrutiny.