Correct me if I’m wrong: SALN and second chances

SALN which stands for Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth has become a familiar term in Philippine society. From the campaign of public officials to the confirmation of presidential appointees and impeachment of Justices, SALN has found its way creeping into various political controversies.

Under Section 8 of Republic Act 6713, otherwise known as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, public officials and employees are mandated to file sworn SALNs.

In the recent case of Jessie Carlos v. Department of Finance — Revenue Integrity Protection Service et al. (G.R. 225774, 18 April 2023), the Supreme Court revisited the procedure before any public official or employee can be held accountable for errors or omissions in, or non-submission of, their SALNs.

In this case, a public employee was dismissed for dishonesty after failing to disclose real properties, motor vehicles, business interests, and liabilities in his SALN. He pleaded for reversal from the Supreme Court claiming good faith and deprivation of due process since he was never granted the opportunity to rectify his alleged omission or mistakes.

Ruling in favor of the public employee, the Supreme Court reiterated the review and compliance procedure under Section 10 of RA 6713 which institutes a mechanism for review and rectification of errors with respect to: (1) failure to submit SALNs on time; and (2) incomplete SALNs, and formally defective SALNs.

According to the High Court, the foregoing procedure is mandatory hence any concerned public official or employee cannot be subjected to disciplinary action without having been granted a non-extendible period of 30 days to perform corrective action. Only in case of failure can such an official or employee be held accountable.

Accordingly, without compliance with the foregoing procedure, no violation shall arise. Consequently, no liability for failure to file, or for omissions or errors in SALNs will be attached. In fact, it is the head of an office who omitted to comply with the foregoing mechanism who can be held accountable for simple neglect of duty.

By so ruling, the Supreme Court expressly abandoned its previous pronouncements maintaining the jurisdiction of the Office of the Ombudsman in prosecuting officials for non-submission or omissions/errors in their SALNs independently of the head of concerned agencies. While it recognized that the duty to conduct the review and compliance procedure is vested to the heads of agencies, the Supreme Court nevertheless points out that the Office of the Ombudsman cannot prosecute the concerned official if the latter was not afforded by the head of concerned office/agency the opportunity to rectify the alleged errors or omissions.

It must be stressed that the recent pronouncement of the Supreme Court does not aim to tolerate the concealment of ill-gotten wealth. On the contrary, it puts focus on the real evil — the accumulation of ill-gotten wealth. Strict compliance with the review and compliance procedure allows the government to weed out simple, correctible errors from actually deliberate, sinister attempts to conceal ill-gotten wealth. After all, what the law seeks to curtail is the “acquisition of unexplained wealth.” Where the source of the undisclosed wealth can be properly accounted for, then it is “explained wealth” which the law does not penalize.

Taken together, the law and rules establish a robust mechanism for the review of SALNs. The objective behind identifying non-submissions of, or omissions and errors in SALNs is to address them. After all, the intention is for a more complete disclosure.

In sum, public officials and employees are likewise entitled to second chances at SALNs. It is only when they still fail to comply after being granted the opportunity to correct, complete, and submit their SALNs that can they be held accountable for any errors or omissions therein, or non-submission thereof.

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