The Deep Pockets of Philippine Presidents
After the fall of former president Ferdinand Marcos, the administration of his successor president Corazon Aquino mandated that public officials disclose their wealth through an annual statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth, otherwise known as a SALN. For almost 30 years since 1989, the government, regardless of who was in charge, complied with the mandate that was put in place to curb corruption at all levels of government.
Until 2018. The Ombudsman has stated that SALNs will no longer be made public and can only be accessed by court order, investigation units, or by the person the SALN concerns, such as senators and presidents. This has caused much alarm as SALNs were once considered vehicles of transparency through which public officials could prove they were using taxpayers’ money lawfully. A SALN is not just a statement of numbers—it also notes business interests, financial connections, and any relatives in government. Around the world, wealth disclosures are an important anti-corruption tool that is backed by the World Bank itself.
The Ombudsman is only one of six institutions that allow access to SALNs, but the others are following suit and making it harder to access these public documents. In the Senate, only the brief summaries of SALNs are privy to the public while the rest is kept confidential. The Senate has used the Data Privacy Act of 2012 as its defense. Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, requests to see SALNs must be approved by a majority vote. Each SALN also has a fee of P300, making the total bill to see public documents of all 305 congressmen equal to P91,500.
The Supreme Court has also jumped onto the bandwagon, requiring court approval for requests to see only the summary of SALNs of its judges. In short, the government has made bureaucracy work for them to restrict access to SALNs.
SALNs as a Weapon
In an interview with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, law professor Antonio La Viña explained that the Ombudsman’s actions were caused by SALNs being “abused, misused, and weaponized” by and against public officials.
“President [Benigno] Aquino [III] used it against [Chief Justice Renato] Corona. President Duterte or the people of President Duterte — [Solicitor General Jose] Calida — used it against [Chief Justice Maria Lourdes] Sereno,” said the professor.
However, he also noted that SALNs are essential to ensuring officials “do not benefit, do not increase their wealth because of their work (in government).”
In 2000, the SALNs of former president Joseph Estrada were instrumental in exposing the “millions, mansions, and mistresses” of the former president. Research found that his expenses for his lavish lifestyle exceeded the net worth declared in his SALNs.
Meanwhile, the murky finances of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo were brought to light when her SALNs showed that her wealth had increased the fastest and the most compared to the combined wealth of all three presidents that came before her. Of all the presidents since 1989, GMA had the largest net worth, ending her term with more than P140 million.
The wealth of Benigno Aquino III was also brought to light, showing how his wealth tripled while in office to around P65 million, but this is still just a fraction of the wealth amassed by Arroyo.
Duterte’s wealth has steadily grown since he entered politics, from P1 million in 1998 to almost P30 million in 2017. This was the last year his SALNs were made public, leaving the wealth of the current president largely unknown and up for speculation. Duterte has publicly slammed SALNs, saying that his family’s finances are no one’s business but their own.
But Section 17 of the 1987 Constitution would disagree.