A despedida party today awaits Asst. Ombudsman Virginia Palanca-Santiago who marks her 65th birthday, the official mandatory age of retirement.
Not everyone, least of all her superior Deputy Ombudsman for the Visayas Pelagio Apostol, is eager to have an immediate successor to her post following her 16-year career in the anti-graft office.
Apostol is seeking the abolition of Santiago's post, saying he doesn't need a replacement.
“I don't need an Assistant Ombudsman who can just disrupt the flow of communication in the office,” he told Cebu Daily News.
Apostol, who has an internal dispute with Santiago, said there are directors in the Ombudsman Visayas who can assist him in official tasks.
He said he won't attend Santiago's despedida today.
“Having an assistant will just cause a conflict. I will work for the abolition of the position. An assistant ombudsman has no other function except to support the director,” he said.
When sought for comment on Apostol's refusal to fill her vacancy, Santiago said “I just dont know. Actually, it all depends on ma'am (Tanodbayan Conchita Carpio-Morales) to fill it up,” Santiago told CDN.
“No one is indispensable in office. If I'll be gone, someone will take over. They will continue. I am just an ordinary employee working hard for the office,” she added.
Santiago is referred to as the 'Iron Lady' in the anti-graft office for taking on cases that involve powerful officials and having a reputation that she can’t be bought or intimidated.
A widow who used to teach criminal law in the University of San Carlos, she goes to daily Mass to fortify herself.
“There are those who say that we are just after the small fish; the big ones are spared. There is nothing personal here. Even if you are my friend, if you commit a mistake, I'm sorry,” she said.
“Walang personalan.” (See Q and A with Santiago in page 3).
Under her watch, the Visayas Ombudsman’s Office recommended criminal charges against suppliers and Cebu officials for the overpriced purchase of China-made decorative lamps for the 2007 ASEAN Summit. The cases are on trial in the Sandiganbayan.
Other fund scams involving the Girl Scouts of the Philippines, and the fake Perdido Lex foundation also resulted in charges filed.
The P99.8 million Balili land deal in Naga, Cebu province was upgraded by Manila into a formal graft investigation against Gov. Gwen Garcia, Capitol officials and members of the Provincial Board in 2010. The inquiry is ongoing.
Another Capitol project was the source of conflict between Santiago and Apostol over findings of a fact-finding panel of Ombudsman prosecutors headed by Santiago.
The panel recommended the filing of charges against parties in the construction of the Cebu International Convention Center (CICC) in Mandaue City, a project for which critics said rules were bent to rush completion for the Janauary 2007 Association of South East Asian (ASEAN) Summit.
Sources in the anti-graft office, who requested anonymity, said Apostol had requested to “look for evidence that would clear Governor Garcia,” causing friction.
Apostol vehemently denied the allegation. He sent the case to the central office in Manila. Findings have not yet been released.
Businessman-turned-whistleblower Crisologo Saavedra, who was among those who helped expose the CICC case, criticized Apostol's refusal to have an assistant Ombudsman.
“He (Apostol) wants power for himself. He doesn't like his decisions to be challenged. That is bad for a government office...I hope he's replaced,” Saavedra said in a phone interview.
Saavedra earlier filed a complaint against Apostol before the Office of the President for purportedly protecting Governor Garcia in the CICC case.
Saavedra said he believes an Asst. Ombudsman is necessary so rulings in the anti-graft office won't be confined to the Deputy Ombudsman alone.
“He's not the Ombudsman. He's only a deputy,” he said.
Today will be Santiago's last day in office. A Mass is scheduled at 9 a.m. followed by a despidida or farewell celebration prepared by employees and colleagues.
Saavedra said he hopes the lawyer continues in public service: “She deserves another position.”
Asked if she has any political plans, Santiago said “as of now, none. I don’t want to enter politics.”
Her immediate plans are to visit her son in the United States and two other children, travel and do “more service for the church”.
She said she may also return to her hometown in Hinunangan, southern Leyte, where her father was town mayor for 16 years. Her husband, lawyer Edgar Santiago died in 1992.
Santiago graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts -Philosophy degree from the University of San Carlos. She finished law in the Ateneo de Manila University and passed the bar in 1972.
She worked in the Department of Agrarian Reform as legal officer then head of the legal section. In 1983, Santiago was appointed prosecutor in Cebu City.
She became a law professor at the USC in 1992. In 1996, Santiago became director of the Ombudsman Visayas. She served as Assistant Ombudsman from 2007 until today. /Ador Vincent Mayol, Reporter