Exposing Redacted SALNs: Perverting a Tool of Transparency
IN BUILDING up a case to establish a government’s ill-gotten wealth, investigators inevitably turn to the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) because it is designed to establish the wealth of a public official at the start of a term; and from year to year, reveal unusual or questionable gains. In recent history, false information in the SALN figured in the impeachment of a chief justice as well as a president.
A current controversy centers on the members of the Cabinet who had requested that certain parts of their SALN should be redacted in copies released to the press.
CMFR cheers the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) for its series on this discovery. PCIJ argues that “The practice – which can only be described as a deviation from the FOI EO’s push for transparency – is apparently new.”
According to PCIJ, the SALNs filed by Cabinet secretaries in June 2016 — when they entered government service as presidential appointees—had little to no redactions, the address of the declarant being the only entry withheld in some cases. Yet the SALNs filed in December 2016 and released by the Malacanang Records Office (MRO) to the media had five to ten redactions seen as entries blackened out with a marker, including significant information such as acquisition costs, exact locations andvalues of personal and real properties, and business interests. Only the entries for the sums of their assets, liabilities and net worth were not blackened out.
PCIJ also compared the SALN forms of government owned and controlled corporation (GOCC) appointees released by the Civil Service Commission (CSC) and the MRO last September 18, observing that unlike the forms from the MRO, the forms from the CSC had no redacted information.
PCIJ said the “Clearinghouse of the OP (Office of the President) Family” made the actual redactions. This body is composed of designated “data privacy officers” from the MRO, the Presidential Communications Office and the OP itself. They invoked the right to privacy and security of the Cabinet members, citing as basis Republic Act No. 10173, or the Data Privacy Act.
These redactions, PCIJ argued, are “clear violations — even an act of ‘repeal by implication’ — of the SALN Law or Republic Act No. 6713, which upholds the principles of transparency and accountability in public service.” CSC commissioners interviewed by the PCIJ said they found no discrepancy between the Data Privacy Act and the SALN Law, agreeing that with regard to SALN disclosures, RA 6713 must prevail.
PCIJ also observed “multimillion-peso increases” in the net worth of certain Cabinet officials within a six-month period. These increases, according to lawyers of the CSC and the Office of the Ombudsman interviewed by PCIJ, “constitute unexplained wealth per se,” as the redacted entries in the SALNs failed to explainthe nature of their declared properties.
Malacanang insisted that they are not trying to hide anything, and that the redaction rules of the OP Clearinghouse are “unwritten”. PCOO Assistant Secretary Kris Ablan said, “The concern of the committee is we have to protect privacy of our principals.” He assured PCIJ that they will maintain discussions on the matter through meetings with the CSC, Office of the Ombudsman and the National Privacy Commission.
PCIJ’s investigative work set in motion demands for accountability from government officials. Senator Antonio Trillanes IV called for a Senate investigation on the redactions. The Philippine Daily Inquirer, SunStar Cebu and The Visayan Daily Star wrote editorials on the issue, all of them pointing out that the crossed out details are so essential that hiding them from the public defeats the purpose of the SALN as a transparency tool.
The public deserves to be updated on Malacanang’s actions on this issue.