Much ado about waivers

I see the whole of Filipino officialdom signing waivers allowing disclosures of their wealth. The snowball is just a small and sluggish one, but may yet turn into an avalanche of chest-beating about transparency. ‘Tis a nice and cozy thought. Nevertheless, I’m afraid it is all ritual with minimal substance, like a  security guard doing the motions of frisking a mall-goer but without really intending to grope all the way to her innards to find a smuggled bomb.

Ousted SC chief justice Renato Corona is now being admired (or grudgingly acknowledged, depending on your politics) as having started the fad in the closing days of his impeachment trial, through the gesture of signing a waiver that authorized banks to disclose his bank accounts, and his office to publicly release his SALN — after which he then challenged other top officials of the land to do likewise.

Progressive party-list groups were among the first to take up the challenge. They even posted their waivers online so that the public can really verify that they are serious about this move and not just seeking “pa-pogi” points as Rep. Niel Tupas (who hasn’t yet signed his waiver) says derisively. A few citizens’ groups have focused on the new flavor-of-the-month issue by forming movements with catchy titles, like “188+1” and so on.

Let me make this very clear: I’m not dismissing civil society’s call for transparency in governance. Waivers, like a thousand other procedural details of anti-corruption laws and COA and CSC rules, have their own role to play in discouraging routine forms of graft and corruption in government. (In much the same way that a security guard doing his ritual frisks plays some role, however superficial, in discouraging crime inside malls.) So, by all means, let’s all ensure that the entire officialdom signs those waivers. In fact, I follow with particular relish the challenge by militant groups for Noynoy to sign his own waiver, a campaign promise he made in 2010, and how his spokespersons are trying to wiggle out of this tight spot.

But, reading the waiver template carefully, I have to regrettably conclude: The waiver is no big deal. Consider the following:

The first part of the waiver says: “I hereby waive my right of confidentiality and secrecy of bank deposits under these laws, and authorize all banking institutions to disclose to the Ombudsman any and all bank documents pertaining to all peso and foreign currency accounts under my name.”

What are the weaknesses in this?

First, the disclosure is limited to the Ombudsman. This means that first, there has to be a complaint filed with the Ombudsman against an official. Then the Ombudsman, if he or she acts on the complaint at all, will now have the authority to get the pertinent bank disclosures. But what if no complaint is filed with the Ombudsman, or he or she doesn’t act on it because the respondent has official immunity from suit, or because the Ombudsman has been known to play politics and favor a certain powerful clique, or a because of thousand other reasons? In such case, then the waiver is useless because the banks won’t disclose except to the Ombudsman.

Second, the permit to disclose is only for bank documents about the accounts in the official’s name. But what about the accounts in the name of his wife, children, in-laws, and mistresses, who could well be trusted dummies? Waiver doesn’t cover that, so no deal. As Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago says, no big-time corrupt official will hide his ill-gotten wealth in bank accounts in his own name, at least not the big bulk of his loot. Even with the FCDA in force, the fears of being tracked by the AMLC (which is how the Noynoy government finally pinned Corona) will discourage the biggest looters from maintaining dollar acounts in their own names. Which was why Marcos and Imelda hid their ill-gotten wealth in Swiss accounts using the nondescript names “William Saunders” and “Jane Ryan,” if we haven’t forgotten yet.

The last part of the waiver says that the public official is likewise authorizing his office (as the depository of the submitted SALNs) to release to the public a copy of all his SALNs throughout his years of public service.

This is a welcome move, of course. But it is no big deal, either, because it’s already a basic premise in the SALN law and should have been implemented earlier. Signing the waiver simply means that while the public had a hard time getting through the tangle of bureaucratic red tape to get SALN copies before, now the process becomes much easier — but only for the SALNs of those officials who signed the waiver. For those who didn’t sign, then it’s business as usual. (“Because we’re not the ones on trial here,” as Noynoy and Drilon chimed, almost like a duet.)

Thus, all in all, I think there’s too much ado about waivers, but so little yet on really powerful citizens’ tools to combat graft and corruption. Like, for example, for Congress to finally pass the Freedom of Information Bill. The FOI’s implementing rules and regulations must also be deemed acceptable to media, citizens’ anti-graft watchdogs, and yes, even for Congress to invoke and use in the next impeachment case.

I’m waiting with bated breath, dear honorable members of Congress. #


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