by Charmaine Lirio

THE UNUSALLY SLOW PACE of the corruption cases against erring officials and government’s failure to secure swift punishment for the guilty are major factors that encourage a reign of impunity within government ranks, a former Ombudsman said.

Former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo said a study by the Office of the Ombudsman showed that corruption cases wallow for more than ten years in the Sandiganbayan, the country’s anti-graft court, before they are decided. This period starts with the filing of the information or complaint sheet against an erring official, until the final rendering of a decision by the court.

This was one of the points raised in the recent Ombudsman Integrity Lecture, where prosecutors, enforcers, civil society organizations, and anti-corruption experts discussed ways to curb corruption in the government.

The speakers all agreed that the war against corruption is one riddled with difficulties. University of Cambridge Professor Barry Rider said that there is no panacea in addressing the problems of corruption and no silver bullet in fighting it. Nevertheless, Dr. Antonio La Viña of the Ateneo School of Government stressed that it does not take rocket science to solve the problem.

La Viña and other lecture panelists, including former Ombudsman Marcelo and Fr. Albert Alejo of the Ateneo de Zamboanga University, said that government reforms, civil society involvement, and the use of media and technology could help in the anti-corruption fight.

La Viña added that using social innovations such as the social media and practicing intergenerational leadership by paying attention to succession in government offices will likewise aid in the anti-corruption campaign.

The country could also benefit from a cultural approach. Ateneo’s Fr. Alejo said that institutions like the school, church, and the family can aid in teaching not only how to be honest but also to demand honesty.

Citizens should be well-trained and alert because citizenship, Alejo said, is also a public trust.

But Marcelo also pointed out that the current criminal justice system is itself an obstacle in the war against corruption.According to Marcelo, the judicial structure is incomplete because of its inability to secure swift punishment for the guilty. He also pointed out that even if the Office of the Ombudsman was able to perform its function effectively, there exists another problem: the amount of time the cases stay with the Sandiganbayan.

Marcelo said that based on a recent study by the Office of the Ombudsman, cases take 10.2 years on the average in the Sandiganbayan, from the filing of information to the rendition of a decision.

Data from the PCIJ’s MoneyPolitics Online website show that from 2010 to 2012, a total 1,132 cases were filed against public officials before the Sandiganbayan, 836 of which still have a “pending” status.

Corrupt officials “think the cases will outlive them,” Marcelo noted. In the end, therefore, there is no accountability.

To address this and other issues on the fight against corruption, Marcelo said, a new system of handling cases may be adapted, new investigators should be recruited, the Freedom of Information bill should be passed, and the president should strengthen the oversight commissions and the judiciary in order to remove the hold of the elites on them.

Rider, for his part, said it is important for government to make clear that corruption can, and will be punished.

Although “the only experts in corruption are those who have not been caught,”

Rider, a legal scholar and renowned investigator, said corruption may be understood using the view of U.S. sociologist Edwin Sutherland, who says that everyone is potentially susceptible to corruption and that, at some point, we will be tempted.

“The determination of whether we actually engage in conduct that might be characterized as criminal or abusive will in large, perhaps determinant, measure be resolved by our own cost-benefit analysis,” Rider said. “In other words, we will assess the rewards as compared with the risk of something unpleasant happening to us.”

Thus, increasing the risk of detection and the likelihood of effective action in policing and punishment significantly tilts the balance against succumbing to the temptation of committing a corrupt act.

Issues, however, arise when it comes to putting these solutions into action. Detection, prosecution, and punishment through transparency, specialized anti-corruption state agencies, and the traditional criminal justice system can also be problematic.

For transparency, the challenge on the mechanisms for disclosure and the ability of its recipient to process the disclosed information need to be dealt with.

Disclosure assists in monitoring official conduct by making information available for scrutiny. Red flags could be easily identified and offenses could be prosecuted at an early stage.

The Philippines will benefit from the passage of the Freedom of Information bill in this regard. But Rider pointed out that the benefit from transparency presupposes effective disclosure mechanisms and empowerment.

“The vast amounts of information that are available need to be analyzed, monitored, and rendered intelligible and understandable by those who may be expected to act upon it,” he said. “Hence, the need for professional analysts, the media, and pressure groups to process such disclosures, target and filter information.”

When it comes to prosecution and punishment, a serious hurdle is the position and power of those who commit the corrupt acts. Said the scholar:”The ability of those in positions of influence who may already have disproportionate authority as a result of their scant regard for the law and good governance, to discourage criticism let alone effective investigation within their society is a reality.”

Rider added that these people will be “unlikely to play by the rules” and “will do whatever is necessary to protect their interests and those of their associates.”

Intimidation, violence, and misinformation are employed by those in power to stunt prosecution and punishment. These are problems not only for prosecutors but also for whistleblowers and witnesses.

Part of the response to this situation is the creation of independent and specialized agencies to deal with corruption. The Philippines employs this system, with the Office of the Ombudsman as an example.

But, specialized or so-called elite agencies are not immune from attacks in the form of reduced budget, power and other forms of “virtual emasculation.” Agencies may also become part of the problem since they may similarly be corrupted.

In 2011, for instance, former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez found herself the subject of an impeachment complaint for betrayal of trust due to the office’s low conviction rate, alleged inaction on several scandals involving public funds (NBN-ZTE, fertilizer fund) and alleged mishandling of cases which included a plea-bargain deal with a military official accused of plunder. She resigned before the impeachment could proceed.

Other issues facing elite agencies are cost, the highly-specialized skills they require, their isolation from other agencies, and the desire and pressure to achieve results.

“The reality is that in all systems of law – whether common law, civilian, Roman Dutch or as in the Philippines an intriguing mix thereof, it has proved over time incredibly difficult to secure convictions, through the traditional processes of the criminal justice system, for economic crime and in particular fraud and corruption,” Rider said.

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