Atty. Jekyll & Mrs. Heidi

Written by PDI Editorial

Retrieved from Philippine Daily Inquirer Editorial First Posted 01:50:00 02/03/2011

Tuesday’s hearing of the committee on justice of the House of Representatives was revelatory in more ways than one. But of the many civics lessons we learned from about six hours of televised hearings, perhaps the sharp contrast we all drew between two kinds of government worker is the one we will remember for a long time.

On the one hand was the example of former government auditor Heidi Mendoza, who repeatedly went out of her way to meet both her own high personal standards and the government objectives entrusted to her. (Two examples: She declined the offer of gasoline subsidies from the military, knowing that it would compromise her. And she served 16 times, even after her resignation from government service, as witness against former AFP comptroller Carlos F. Garcia in his Sandiganbayan trial.)

On the other was Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, who defined her responsibilities in running after the corrupt in government in the most limited way. (Two examples: She blithely accepted the belated view of her prosecutors that the two admissions of Clarita Garcia, the ex-general’s wife, could not be used as evidence. And she approved a plea bargain proposal the very day after Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio, who pushed the case against Garcia, resigned from the service.)

To be sure, we shouldn’t lose sight of the important disclosures made under oath last Tuesday: that, to cite only three examples, two commissioners of the Commission on Audit, including the chairman at the time, showed a marked and, in our view, culpable lack of support for Mendoza’s investigation into the confounding finances of the Armed Forces; that a check for P200 million bearing Garcia’s signature was handled in the most questionable fashion, and may be related to an onerous pabaon or send-off gift to one lucky AFP chief of staff; that two military comptrollers may have used their connections to derive undue and illegal benefits from the “float” of dollar-denominated funds remitted by the United Nations for the account of the AFP.

We also shouldn’t fail to note the hits and misses in the handling of the committee hearing itself. We commend Iloilo Rep. Neil Tupas Jr. for his dogged pursuit of the Garcia case which led to Gutierrez’s first-ever appearance in a congressional hearing, but must also note his unfortunate tendency to hog the microphone by asking questions his committee members could well have asked themselves. We recognize Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas’ able handling of the afternoon session, but worry that his suggestion to host dinner for Gutierrez and her predecessor and adversary, Simeon Marcelo, is only yet another case of high-level areglo or special arrangement. We deplore Davao del Sur Rep. Marc Douglas Cagas IV’s shameless and transparent lawyering for Garcia and others, repeatedly invoking a legal maxim in Latin he could not even pronounce properly and raising inane (because already well-settled) questions about the power of Congress to conduct inquiries.

But it is the contrast between Mendoza and Gutierrez that provides the best civics lesson of all.

Mendoza is no saint. Or rather, and more precisely, she can be as exasperating as a saint. By her own admission, she failed to consult her husband and her family when she decided to resign from an enviable position in the Asian Development Bank, in order to devote herself to the cause of informing the public about the truth of the Garcia case. But these human limitations are precisely what make her revelations resonant. Her undoubted competence in auditing makes her testimony convincing, but it is her self-evident passion to let the truth out, no matter what the cost, that makes her account persuasive.

Gutierrez, unfortunately, is no knight in shining armor. Those of us who want the Office of the Ombudsman, one of the most powerful in the entire government, to be filled by a fearless advocate of truth and justice, animated by a reforming zeal and a legal resourcefulness equal to the office’s great powers, will have to wait for her successor.

There, then, lies the true horror, which helps explain the Ombudsman’s abysmal conviction rate: the official, bland face of government dedication ends up rewarding government corruption, while the unusual, impassioned face can only wail in desperation.

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