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SC: Ombudsman can regulate release of net worth records

THE SUPREME COURT (SC) has rejected a lawsuit questioning the validity of a government memo limiting public access to net worth records of public officials.

In a Feb. 2 resolution made public on Wednesday, the tribunal said the Ombudsman may regulate access to official records including statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of government officials.

“While the right of access to information to a public official’s SALN is provided under the Constitution and Republic Act 6713, the same is not an absolute vested right,” it said. “The court has declared in the past that while no prohibition could stand against access to official records such as the SALN, the same is undoubtedly subject to regulation.”

Ombudsman Samuel R. Martires has issued a memo requiring notarized consent of an official before a request for a copy of his net worth statement is approved.

The High Court also scolded litigant Louis Biraogo for going straight to the tribunal instead of filing his suit before a lower court.

“The rule is now well-settled that litigants do not have unfettered discretion to invoke the court’s original jurisdiction in the issuance of extraordinary writs, which it concurrently shares with the regional trial courts and the Court of Appeals,” it said.

It also said there was no actual case or controversy since the Ombudsman had only verbally denied, based Mr. Biraogo’s own account, his request for a copy of the net worth statement of Vice President Maria Leonor G. Robredo.

The plaintiff wanted a copy of the vice president’s net worth statement supposedly to study her office’s use of a mansion in Quezon City that was allegedly paid for using taxpayer’s money.

After getting no response, he supposedly called the Ombudsman’s office and was verbally that his request had been denied given Mr. Martires’s memo issued in September.

The court called his account a “bare, self-serving and unsubstantiated allegation.”

The high court noted that as custodian of the net worth statements of justice and judges, it had issued rules on access and denied requests due to improper motives.

In September, it blocked the attempts by a private lawyer and the Solicitor General to gain access to the net worth statement of Justice Marvic Mario Victor F. Leonen.

A plan to file a suit inquiring into the magistrate’s legal right to his post did not prosper, but an impeachment complaint was filed against him at the House of Representatives. Among the allegations was his failure to file his net worth statement for 15 years when he was still teaching at the University of the Philippines.

A House committee in May rejected the complaint as lawyers, judges, human rights advocates and even retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio T. Carpio defended Mr. Leonen’s, saying the complaint was baseless.

The Ombudsman memo has allowed President Rodrigo Duterte to keep his 2018, 2019, and 2020 net worth statements secret. Some public officials including Ms. Robredo release their statements to journalists who request a copy.

Under the law, it is illegal to obtain or use net worth statements for any commercial purpose other than by news media that write stories for public consumption.

The Supreme Court said the lawsuit, which sought to compel the Ombudsman to perform a government duty, was wrongly filed because the country’s chief graft buster can deny such requests as the custodian of SALNs of presidents, vice presidents and heads of constitutional bodies. — B.A.D. Añago

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