By Felipe Villamor
The top graft prosecutor in the Philippines openly defied President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday, saying she would not enforce a suspension order against a deputy ombudsman who had allegedly disclosed the leader’s bank details.
Duterte’s office announced Monday that it had suspended Overall Deputy Ombudsman Melchor Arthur Carandang for 90 days while preparing charges against him for disclosing documents about bank transactions of the 72-year-old president and his family members.
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales cited a 2014 ruling by the country’s Supreme Court that “categorically declared unconstitutional the administrative disciplinary jurisdiction of the president over deputy ombudsmen.”
“The Ombudsman cannot, therefore, seriously place at risk the independence of the very office which she has pledged to protect on the strength of the constitutional guarantees which the High Court has upheld,” Morales said in a statement.
Carandang is being formally investigated for “grave misconduct” and “grave dishonesty” for publicly “divulging valuable information of a confidential character,” according to presidential palace officials. An administrative case had been lodged at the president’s office against Carandang, who has kept silent on the allegation.
Carandang had been probing allegations made by opposition Sen. Antonio Trillanes that Duterte maintained secret bank accounts containing millions in alleged ill-gotten wealth, contrary to the president’s claims in public that he was poor.
Duterte dismissed the allegations and challenged Trillanes to show proof. He also said he was willing to step down if Trillanes provided evidence, but he resisted a challenge to sign a bank waiver granting investigators access to his accounts.
In September last year, Duterte sought to reverse public perceptions and accused Trillanes of maintaining a secret bank account in Singapore, and publicly disclosed his alleged bank account number.
However, Trillanes proved that the bank account did not exist, forcing Duterte to admit that he had lied and invented the bank account.
Duterte, who handily won the presidency in 2016 by a wide margin, casually dismissed the lie, which did not appear to dent his popularity.
Morales said the president’s order suspending Carandang posed a “great cause of concern.”
“It has become clear that the act of the Office of the President in taking cognizance of the complaints against the Overall Deputy Ombudsman and ordering his preventive suspension was not an inadvertent error but a clear affront to the Supreme Court and an impairment of the constitutionally enshrined independence of the Office of the Ombudsman,” Morales said.
“In a society founded on the rule of law, the arbitrary disregard of a clearly-worded jurisprudence, coupled with a confident stance that it will be changed, should never be countenanced,” she said.
Duterte’s chief legal counsel, Salvador Panelo, on Wednesday defended the suspension and emphasized that the president was only complying with his constitutional duty to ensure that all laws be applied equally.
“While the constitution does provide for the independence of the Ombudsman, the constitution also provides for the effective system of checks and balances, which is a hallmark of our democratic government and ensures the proper accountability of public officers,” he said.
Panelo said Carandang’s offense was of a “wantonly malicious and deceitful nature” that clearly violated the Ombudsman’s own administrative order barring anyone from divulging valuable confidential information.
“Carandang’s action demonstrate that he is unfit to hold office in the esteemed Office of the Ombudsman or any other public office for that matter,” Panelo said. “No one is above the law and those that break it will be held responsible, hence the suspension.”