Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Ombudsman's Obsolete

With a budget of P1.06 billion this year and an almost perfect score in corruption in the country, what else can you conclude about the Office of the Ombudsman from this equation?  I think it is everyone's opinion, without the need for any further investigation, that it is no longer in the business of anti-corruption, as it was meant to be. (GMA News, February 2011)

In fact, it is such a waste of money and human resources. The opportunity cost is so much that 32% of the population is buried deep below poverty.  I see a need to convene another Constitutional Assembly to dissolve this office along with the rest of the government. Filipinos should be given the chance to design a new nation. (CIA World Fact Book, 2011)

What happened?  What did the wise men of the 1987 Constitutional Assembly miss when they laid out the foundation of the Office of the Ombudsman?

Before I go any further, allow me to qualify one thing. I do not pretend to be an authority on this issue. The only reason why I am speaking out about this is because I was once inside it, and I have a story to tell. Maybe it will help confirm the growing opinion of the public against the Ombudsman, and hopefully shake them out of their passivity. Here it goes.

“I am sorry but I already filed that case,” Atty. Francisco Agrava Villa said over the phone one working day. I knew who he was talking to because I answered the phone. Then, sensing my worries, he decided to fill me in.

“He wants me to hold off,” he explained,  "the usual stuff of delaying tactic."  He was referring to the case against Congressman Nicanor de Guzman for gun smuggling.

He was the chief prosecutor of Pasay City at that time shortly before the late President Cory Aquino appointed him for the post of Deputy Ombudsman for the Military.  He earned a place in Philippine history for successfully sending to jail an incumbent congressman for the first time. He did so in record time of six months. Villa was known not to ask for any favors from anybody much less give them, no matter what. He was rock solid.

When the late Conrado Vasquez retired as Ombudsman, President Cory Aquino appointed Villa to be the acting Ombudsman. It was shortly before she left office to give way to her successor.  It was naivety on our part to believe that he would eventually get the appointment considering his sterling career in the government. It turned out that it was too good to be true for a country destined to learn some very hard lessons.

I remember being on a bus in New York City when I met a Filipino who introduced himself as a staff member of the House of Representatives. When he learned who I was, he started to talk about the appointments in the government under the new president.

"We all think that Villa will not get the appointment because he is not a team player," he said.

He was right. It turned out that acting Ombudsman Villa was working on a case against the new leadership.

At that time, I thought it was a wrong career move on his part. However, like I said, he was uncompromising even to the point of his own detriment.

After a few months, we watched a series of debates in Congress regarding the choice of the new leader to head the Office of the Ombudsman. I recall one senator questioning Aniano Desierto's lack of credentials compared to Villa.

Villa began his career in the government as a special agent of the National Bureau of Investigation after passing the bar. He was trained by the FBI and observed at Scotland Yard. One of his famous accomplishments was arresting Harry Stonehill in 1962. It was big news at that time, even in the United States. (The New Yorker, 1962)

He became a City Fiscal of Manila before being appointed by Mayor Claudio of Pasay City to be the Chief of Police. He was always making news for raiding and closing down illegal casinos that lined Dewey Boulevard.  Then, he quit the government when Marcos declared Martial Law.

He refused to work for the government until he was tapped to work as one of the legal counsels for the Agrava Fact Finding Board that investigated the assassination of Ninoy Aquino.

He became City Fiscal of Pasay City.  It was during this time that he made history when he sent the first incumbent congressman to jail. Impressed by this impossible feat in a highly corrupt atmosphere, President Cory Aquino appointed him to as Deputy Ombudsman for the Military.

With that said, the appointment of an outsider with questionable background in place of a highly qualified acting Ombudsman already raised some red flags. It is such an unfortunate waste of an institution that could have been our country's only hope of check and balance against corruption. It was also a complete break away from the intentions of the late President Cory Aquino when she anointed Villa to be the next Ombudsman. (Inquirer Global Nation, September 2009)

Now, what do you think happened after that?  I guess the better question to ask is what on earth made anyone think that a guy who worked as one of the prosecutors of the most heinous military courts in our history, during the time of Marcos, could be the best anti-corruption czar of the Philippines?  I say he wagged the tail of that lizard, long after it died. (Manila Times, April 2011)

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism has reported over and over again about the lack of results in the Office of the Ombudsman through its 22 years of service. It singled out Desierto and Gutierrez as being the worst of the four who served. In one of its articles, it reported about one particular case that caught the attention of the whole nation: (PCIJ, October 2006)

In November 1995, the office of Deputy Ombudsman for Military Affairs Manuel Casaclang’s office came out with a 65-page resolution dismissing the case. The papers, which curiously lacked Casaclang’s signature, were forwarded to Desierto.

“Well, Desierto couldn’t sign it either,” said Overall Deputy Ombudsman Francisco Villa. “He asked for my help and we formed a committee to review it. We came out that there was a case (for murder). Principal si Lacson and the other generals were accessories (after the fact).”

But the Villa Panel’s findings were overruled by Desierto, who formed another review panel, this time headed by Special Prosecution Officer Roger Berbano.

Two weeks later, the Review Panel — minus Berbano, who had resigned from the prosecutor’s office on February 16 — submitted its recommendations to Desierto. Its members had failed to reach a consensus, although private prosecutors said there was a “preponderance of opinion” for the maintenance of charges as principal against Lacson and the upgrading of charges against Canson, Acop and Francisco Zubia.

But Desierto downgraded the charges against Lacson while maintaining the findings of the Villa Panel regarding Canson, Acop and Zubia. Desierto based his decision mainly on SPO2 Eduardo de los Reyes’s testimony at the Valentine’s Day hearing, calling it “new evidence.” Out of the 26 accused, 11 were found principal players; not one was a high-ranking officer.

Villa appeared before a Congressional hearing to expose the reason why Desierto changed his mind about the Kuratong Baleleng case. He presented evidence that Desierto accepted gifts in exchange for favors, even showing a photo of a new expensive house that Desierto would not have been able to afford with his salary alone.

However, it was not a simple court case wherein an honest judge would rule based on evidence. It was before the House of Congress who never got around to solving any thing. Besides, he was not a politician. He got embroiled in a brutal debate before politicians who did not care about anything else but their agendas.

The first time I flew home when my mother died in 2003, I saw him again for the first time in over a decade. Gone was the physical strength of a man who fought bravely and honestly against crime and corruption all his life.

The only comforting truth about it all was the realization that I am what I am because of him, proud to have him as my father, and at peace with the knowledge that he was one of the real and rare good guys in our government.

I am also happy to say that he is still with us back in our home in Manila. With the same persistence that won him many cases in the past, he continues to fight even at the age of 84. Sadly this time, it is against Alzheimer's disease that robbed this sorry country of his memories.

After Overall Deputy Ombudsman Francisco Agrava Villa left office, the Ombudsman's totally gone obsolete.


  1. this is one great story that touches the core of our presently rotten judicial system as well as the "politicization" of it. i concur with the author that there is indeed a need to convene another constitutional assembly to dissolve the office of the ombudsman or at the very least, make amendments on its scope, power and responsibilities/accountabilities. the present ombudsman has evidently abused her powers and definitely has denied or refused to act on her responsibilities/accountabilities to the Filipino people as such.
    the familial touch that ms cordi villa injected makes the story more touching as we, Filipinos, are never devoid of feelings when family matters/relations are discussed.
    a great story of a great man robbed of his rightful and dignified place in the Philippine judicial system, and robbed of his memory due to Alzheimer's disease.
    congratulations ms villa! this is a nice piece of tribute to ur father while he is still around.

  2. Thank you very much for reading between the lines. My intention is not to glorify my father but to let everybody realize that Filipinos are being robbed right before their very eyes of every gift and chance to make our government work better because we do not say or do what is necessary to ensure this. People power might not work the 3rd time.