Oct 19, 2020

Ever since the law mandating public disclosure of all government officials’ statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) was passed in 1989, the Office of the Ombudsman has provided access to the wealth reports of public servants including the President. But now, even the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) can’t seem to get their hands on these documents.

Last September, the Office of the Ombudsman issued the Memorandum Circular 1, which restricts the public’s access to the SALN of officials across all branches of government. This makes them one of the SALN custodians with the most restrictive access rules. But even before the memorandum, PCIJ reported they have not had access to the President’s wealth report since 2017—the year of his last publicly-accessible SALN.

In addition to the Ombudsman, PCIJ shared through a press statement that they also requested the Office of the President to release Duterte’s SALNs for 2018 and 2019. 

duterte wealth saln
Chart of President Rodrigo Duterte’s wealth based on his SALN filings as reported by PCIJ (Infographic by Alexandra Paredes)

“After all, Malacañang has made SALNs public in the past. We made the first request on June 21, 2019 and followed up repeatedly. The response? Ask the Office of the Ombudsman, which we had already done,” stated PCIJ. The media organization then noted that their repeated requests have been tossed back and forth between the two offices until the Ombudsman released Memorandum Circular 1.

Presidential SALNs from 1989 to 2017: Revealed

In light of the Ombudsman’s public access restriction to the wealth reports of the President and other officials, PCIJ is releasing the SALNs of all past presidents since it was required by law in 1989. 

These records, starting from former president Corazon Aquino in 1989 to President Rodrigo Duterte in 2017, can be accessed and downloaded by the public here.

The wealth of presidents from 1989 to 2017, compared based on SALN filings as reported by PCIJ (Infographic by Alexandra Paredes)

Why should you care about public officials’ SALN?

The SALN is required under Article XI Section 17 of the 1987 Constitution and laws like the Section 8 of Republic Act No. (RA) 6713—also known as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employee—and Republic Act No. 3019—also known as the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act. In RA 6713, it is stated that public officials shall always “be accountable to the people” and “lead modest lives.”

Since it was mandated by law for all government officials in 1989, the SALN has been used as a tool for people to “detect and manage potential conflicts of interest” and prevent corruption. “The requirement that public officials declare their income and assets can help deter the use of public office for private gain,” said the World Bank

In an interview with PCIJ, law professor and former dean of the Ateneo School of Government Antonio La Viña said that SALN is a tool for transparency which helps ensure that officials “do not benefit, do not increase their wealth because of their work (in government).”

As of writing, only the Malacañang Records Office and the Civil Service Commission provide access to full copies of SALNs without the need for the declarants’ approval—out of six SALN custodians. According to the Ombudsman’s recent circular, copies of the SALN may only be provided to a requester if:

  • he or she is the declarant or the person who filed the SALN or the duly authorized representative of the declarant;
  • there is a court order; or
  • the request is made by the Ombudsman’s field investigation units

“In July 2000, PCIJ reported how former President Joseph Estrada did not declare his participation in about a dozen companies in which he and his wife were major investors and board members. His wealth disclosures neither gave an idea of the magnitude of the business interests that he and his families were engaged in,” wrote the media organization in their statement.

estrada wealth saln
Chart of former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada’s wealth based on his SALN filings as reported by PCIJ (Infographic by Alexandra Paredes)

Meanwhile, in 2009, “PCIJ found that the declared wealth of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had increased the fastest, and by amounts much bigger, than the combined net growth of the three presidents before her.”

arroyo wealth saln
Chart of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s wealth based on her SALN filings as reported by PCIJ (Infographic by Alexandra Paredes)

And in 2011, “PCIJ reported that President Benigno Aquino III’s wealth had grown nearly three times, or from only P15.44 million as of December 2009 to P55 million as of December 2010.” 

aquino wealth saln
Chart of former President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III’s wealth based on his SALN filings as reported by PCIJ (Infographic by Alexandra Paredes)

With these reports, it can be seen that the SALN helps hold officials accountable for the wealth they have accumulated while sat in their positions. For La Viña, “the media should always be given full access or at least access to the most important part of the SALN, the summary part.”

He also 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.”

“In the past 30 years, the PCIJ has obtained the full statements, not summaries, of the wealth disclosures of many public officials either through routine requests or in the course of its reporting. While some agencies held back, it was sometimes also possible to walk into the offices of government offices, or Malacañang, and get a copy right there and then. Some presidents, like Fidel V. Ramos and Joseph Estrada even disclosed their income tax returns,” stated PCIJ. 

The current administration and SALN

Last year, PCIJ published a story based on all of President Duterte’s SALN filings since he was Davao City’s mayor. The report showed an increase in his wealth from less than P1 million in 1998 to nearly P29 million in 2017. Additionally, the wealth declared on his children’s SALNs also recorded increases of their own.

In response to this, the President said, “What we earned outside is none of your business actually.” 

Aside from the disclosure of officials’ SALN filings to the public, the Office of the Ombudsman also ceased conducting lifestyle checks on public officials due to “unclear” provisions of RA 6713. “Anong pakialam natin sa buhay ng may buhay kung hindi naman nagnanakaw?” said Ombudsman Samuel Martires during the office’s budget hearing in the House of Representatives last September. “What is simple living to me may not be simple living to you or anyone.”

ombudsman saln
Photo of Office of the Ombudsman from PCIJ

But despite the Ombudsman’s memorandum, the Office of the Vice President has been reporting current Vice President Robredo’s SALN and promises that it will continue to be accessible to the public. As of Sept. 24 this year, the SALN of 23 Cabinet and Cabinet-level members obtained from the Malacañang Records Office were also reported by Rappler.

With this restriction on the SALN, what can we then expect to happen to transparency and accountability in the government? 

 

Header photo from Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

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