FOUR anti-graft czars and 22 years since its birth on Nov. 17, 1989, the Office of the Ombudsman of the Philippines has failed to strike fear in the hearts of crooks, or summon full respect from the people it is supposed to protect against crooks.
All four chiefs of the Office – the late Conrado M. Vasquez, who served from May 1988 to September 1995; Aniano A. Desierto, October 1995 to September 2002; Simeon V. Marcelo, October 2002 to November 2005; and the incumbent Ma. Merceditas N. Gutierrez, December 2005 to November 2012 – had launched their stints as the nation’s top graft-busters with firm, elaborate, hopeful reforms to fight corruption.
When the criticisms trickled in – invariably over low conviction rates, perceived partiality toward the presidents who appointed them, and sheer failure to cope with tremendous case loads and hail crooks to jail – all four trudged on. What they ended serving up, though, were not more and better results, but more excuses (Desierto and Gutierrez doing so more than the other two).
ANIANO DESIERTO, the country’s second Ombudsman, used to be a broadcast newsman, but current chief graftbuster Merceditas N. Gutierrez has turned out to be more of a media creature than he ever was. She has been, in fact, a “tri-media personality,” running a personal column in a business daily, even as she co-hosted a radio show and a TV program on state-run media.
It may then not be far-fetched to assume that she and the agency that she heads would be more forthcoming than other government officials and institutions on information requested by the public or at the very least the media. Besides, as “protector of the people,” the Ombudsman’s Office is supposed to lead government in promoting transparency, efficiency, and quality of service to all citizens.
Yet while all procedures on accessing the Ombudsman’s key frontline services are spelled out on paper, actual experiences by some complainants, lawyers, and journalists reveal a side of the Office that is not very accessible and responsive to citizens’ needs.
Ombudsman Ma. Merceditas N. Gutierrez has repeatedly cited a lack of funds, lawyers, and even time in the face of her Office’s progressively increasing caseload. She also points to these impediments whenever she rails against what she refers to as “recycled criticisms” that have painted her and the agency she heads as prone to bias and inefficiency, among other things.
But more than just the supposed lack of funds, donor assessment reports show that the stunningly effete record of the Ombudsman’s Office under Gutierrez is the result largely of her own failure as leader and manager.
In fact, far from a pittance, lots of money from foreign donor and the national budget have been the exceptional privilege of the Office of the Ombudsman since Gutierrez assumed her position on December 1, 2005. In the last five years thus, Gutierrez has not been lacking in funds, and has enjoyed access to more money than any of her three predecessors combined, and could afford to hire more than double the number of personnel they had been allowed to get.