CORRUPTION takes place because individuals who have been entrusted with power take liberties with the law and with the public purse. Pursuing the trail of wrongdoing inevitably leads to individuals who commit malfeasance. Sooner or later, therefore, those uncovering corruption will have to check on the lifestyles, assets, and behavior of public officials.
These are areas that are ripe for investigation. The accumulation of wealth by those who hold public office is hardly kept secret, and there is bound to be documentation proving such illicit amassing of riches. Moreover, even while corrupt deals are transacted behind closed doors, those who commit wrongdoing invariably leave a trail, either in the form of botched procedures or behavior that violates codes of ethics.
One of the techniques that has been successfully used to investigate corrupt public officials is to check on their lifestyles.
Extravagant lifestyles are one of the most obvious indicators of corruption and among the easiest to document. They are also a violation of the law, if an official is unable to prove where she got the wherewithal to support such a lifestyle.
The Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (Republic Act 3019) says that a public official can be dismissed if he “has been found to have acquired during his incumbency, whether in his name or in the name of other persons, an amount of property and/or money manifestly out of proportion to his salary and to his other lawful income.” There is a presumption of culpability if an official cannot explain where she acquired income or assets. Among the things mentioned in R.A. 3019 as indicators of unexplained wealth are unexplained bank deposits, “manifestly excessive expenditures,” and ostentatious display of wealth, including frequent travel abroad.
Visits to offices and houses are a good way to begin a lifestyle check. Among the things to look out for are fancy vehicles (boats, cars, jet skis, etc.) parked in these homes or used for ferrying officials, sumptuous parties hosted by them, the retinues they keep (bodyguards, valets, maids), the suits and jewelry they wear. Other lifestyle indicators are foreign trips, children sent abroad for schooling, or, as in the case of former president Estrada, luxury houses built for mistresses and family members.
After taking note, one can begin asking questions. Remember that public officials are banned by the anti-graft law from receiving gifts. Find out whether they have a plausible explanation for the manner in which they live. What salaries do they get from the government? Did they inherit or marry into land or other forms of wealth? Did they make money from a business or profession?
To answer these questions, one must do a background check. Ask for curriculum vitae; interview family, friends, staff, classmates, and townmates; scour newspaper archives for articles about these officials.
Statement of Assets and Liabilities
When casing public officials, researchers should first get hold of the statement of assets and liabilities all government employees are required to file every year. Underreporting and nonreporting are common, so researchers should be wary.
The most visible signs of wealth are real property assets. Fortunately, land records are routinely available in the Philippines. The problem with investigating real property assets, however, is that astute public officials conceal ownership by putting the property in the names of other people, like relatives, and companies. Still, asset tracing is worth doing, as the PCIJ’s own experience with investigating then president Estrada’s wealth has shown.
Nonreal property assets of public officials also provide telltale signs of wealth. Here’s a checklist:
- golf/club shares
- vehicles (registration, make/model, year, peculiarities, especially accessories)
- bank accounts
It may also help to observe the following of public officials:
- their hobbies/form of recreation
- their social/lodge affiliations
- the bars and restaurants they frequent
- the type of tobacco and alcohol they consume
- the shops they, their spouses and children patronize
- the schools where they send their children
(Excerpts from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism book “Investigating Corruption, A Do-it-Yourself Guide . Here’s a link: http://pcij.org/HotSeat/lifestyle.html)