MANILA, Philippines — The head of a key Philippine anti-graft agency on Wednesday defied an order by President Rodrigo Duterte’s office to suspend her deputy for allegedly disclosing confidential information to the media about an investigation into Duterte’s alleged undeclared wealth.
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales said the order by Duterte’s office for the 90-day suspension of Deputy Ombudsman Melchor Arthur Carandang is “patently unconstitutional” and would endanger the constitutionally guaranteed independence of her agency, which investigates officials for alleged corruption.
It was not immediately clear how the legal standoff will be resolved between the brash-talking Duterte and Morales, a former Supreme Court justice known for her tough stance against corruption and for the rule of law.
Duterte’s legal adviser warned officials could face criminal sanctions if they refuse to enforce or impede the enforcement of the president’s legal order unless a court invalidates it.
“The Ombudsman will thus not allow herself to betray her sworn duty to uphold the constitution by recognizing what is patently unconstitutional,” Morales said of the suspension order. “It has become clear that the act of the Office of the President … was not an inadvertent error but a clear affront to the Supreme Court and an impairment of the constitutionally enshrined independence of the Office of the Ombudsman.”
Morales cited a 2014 ruling in which she said the Supreme Court “categorically declared unconstitutional the administrative disciplinary jurisdiction of the president over deputy ombudsmen.”
Opposition Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV said Duterte’s order was a ground for the president’s impeachment. “This is another Duterte tactic that’s meant to bully democratic institutions into submission so he could go on with his dictatorial and corrupt ways,” Trillanes said.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr., a lawyer, argued that Duterte has the power to discipline Carandang and other government officials and denied that the president was bullying the anti-graft official. Carandang, who faces charges of grave misconduct and disclosing false information, revealed confidential information to the media which was false, Roque said.
Last October, an angry Duterte said he would not cooperate in an investigation being led by Carandang of undeclared bank accounts with huge deposits that Duterte allegedly maintained with his daughter when he was still a city mayor.
Duterte has denied any wrongdoing and publicly vowed to resign if anyone proves he or any of his children were involved in corruption. He won the presidency last year with a large margin on a promise to eradicate crime and graft.
The ABS-CBN TV network cited Carandang as saying in October that his agency has received Duterte’s bank records from before he became president from 2006 to 2016 and that they show millions of pesos (millions of dollars) being transacted in joint accounts with his children.
Duterte’s bank records were provided by the government’s Anti-Money Laundering Council, ABS-CBN quoted Carandang as saying. The council is a financial intelligence agency that safeguards the privacy of bank accounts and aims to fight money laundering.
The council later denied that the information cited by Carandang came from it, Roque said, adding that the details later turned out to be wrong. Those wrongful actions sparked the decision to suspend Carandang, Roque said.
Duterte, who has been criticized for his deadly crackdown on illegal drugs, has often said he has committed many wrongs in his life but stressed that corruption was not one of them.