A House of secrets By Karol Ilagan

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A House of secrets
By Karol Ilagan
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

SINCE the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona began two months ago, members of the House of Representatives have repeatedly said that the public is welcome to access their Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth or SALNs. The PCIJ presumes itself as part of the public, but somehow it still hasn’t had that much luck in securing copies of the SALNs of members of the current House.

As of press time, the Office of the Secretary General at the House had yet to approve PCIJ’s long-standing requests for a copy of the SALNs of members of the 15th Congress. The requests, which were filed in 2011 and then early this year, are now being subjected to procedures that the Office is still revising. The House has failed to issue an official response to the latest request within the period stipulated by the law.

PCIJ was also not very successful in its separate SALN requests to four members of the prosecution panel: Iloilo Rep. Niel C. Tupas Jr., Quezon Rep. Lorenzo R. Tañada III, Marikina Rep. Romero Frederico S. Quimbo, and Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo M. Angara. As of this writing, only Rep. Tañada has provided a copy of his CV and SALNs to PCIJ. In his reply, the Deputy Speaker said as well that he had given a “blanket authority for the Secretary General to release my SALN to whoever asks for it.”

In stark contrast to the House, the Senate has consistently granted PCIJ’s requests. These include PCIJ’s most recent request for the SALNs of certain senators from 1998 to 2010, which was approved and processed by the Senate Secretary within 11 working days.

PCIJ’s Jan. 20, 2012 request for a copy of the SALNs of certain senior officials including the heads of all the constitutional commissions from 1998 to 2010 was also granted by the Office of the Ombudsman. A total of 106 SALNs were released by the Office within 10 working days.

Last January, PCIJ published a story about its often frustrating experiences in accessing SALNs from various state agencies. But it entertained some hope that recalcitrant government offices would eventually release the documents — and soon. That included the House of Representatives, where the SALN custodian, according to law, is the secretary general’s office. After all, various media reports had quoted House Secretary General Marilyn B. Yap, in response to PCIJ’s story, as saying that House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. had issued an order to keep records open, especially to the media.

Ricardo Bering, director of the Records Management Service, had also said that people could do research at the House of Representatives and copy documents during regular working hours.

And then there were some House members who took the initiative to voluntarily disclose their SALNs after the story was released, among them Akbayan Party-List Representatives Kaka Bag-ao and Walden Bello, who posted copies of their SALNs online.

Bello gave the Office of the Secretary General the authority to release his SALN to requesting parties as well. In addition, Bello said he would “engage” officials of the House of Representatives to ease restrictions in the release of the complete SALNs of Congress members.

But when PCIJ made follow-up calls to the Office of the Secretary General, the Office disregarded its previous requests and asked PCIJ to file new ones. So, on Feb. 16, 2012, PCIJ sent three letters to Secretary General Yap following Director Roberto P. Maling’s instructions: one, a request for the SALNs and personal data sheet or curriculum vitae (PDS/CV) of the members of the prosecution panel; two, a request for the SALNs and PDS/CV vitae of the rest of the members of the House; and, three, a query on how the Office of the Secretary General processes SALN requests and a request for a copy of the memorandum that supposedly provides for the procedures for SALN release.

Copies of these letters were also sent to House Speaker Belmonte, Deputy Speaker Tañada, House Committee on Public Information Chairperson Rep. Ben P. Evardone, and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales.

More than 15 working days have passed since these new (yet old) requests were submitted, but no approval or at least an official response has been issued by the Office. Under the law, public officials and employees are required to respond to letters, telegrams, or other means of communications sent by the public within 15 working days. The reply must contain the action taken on the request.

According to staff employees of the Office of the Secretary General and the Legal Affairs Department, the requests are still pending because procedures for SALN release are still being revised. The Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is supposedly being drafted at the Planning and Management Information Service, which would then be referred to the Legal Affairs Department.

PCIJ tried to seek clarifications on the supposed revised guidelines but Director Maling, the person in charge, has been unavailable since last week. In particular, the PCIJ wanted to find out the reasons that triggered the revision, the timetable or when the procedure will likely be finalized, and why actions have not been taken regarding PCIJ’s SALN requests, considering that these were filed prior to the issuance of the revised procedures.

In PCIJ’s prior experience, the procedures followed at the House of Representatives for SALN requests were: requestors submit a letter and an accomplished request form to the Office of the Secretary General; the Office of the Secretary General then sends the request to the Legal Affairs Department for recommendation; the Legal Affairs Department informs and gets the approval of the House members concerned; the Legal Affairs Department then sends its recommendation to Office of the Secretary General, which forwards it to the Records Management Service; and, the Records Management Service releases the documents for photocopying.

One of the staff employees at the secretary general’s office said that the Office may adopt the Civil Service Commission’s guidelines for the release of SALN. Should this happen, the Office of the Secretary General may require requesting parties to submit IDs and endorsement from his or her employer or school dean or secretary (for students), among other things.  If the request is approved, there would be a fee of P200 per SALN.

Meanwhile, Akbayan Rep. Bello’s office says it is still following up with the Office of the Secretary General matters pertaining to its previous discussions regarding PCIJ’s SALN request. According to Bello’s Senior Legislative and Media Officer Sabrina Gacad, the secretary general has not responded to Bello’s Jan. 24, 2012 letter that in part asked why the 2010 SALNs of the House members were not released. – PCIJ, March 2012

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