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Maharlika bill FoI safeguards seen as inadequate

THE Maharlika Investment Fund (MIF) bill is suffering from a lack of public consultation, with transparency safeguards like the obligation to respond to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests deemed insufficient for achieving transparency, a non-government organization said.

David Michael M. San Juan, convener of the Professionals for a Progressive Economy, added that public consultations on the bill should have taken months.

Mr. San Juan, also an associate professor at De La Salle University, said in an e-mail that he is not reassured by safeguards inserted into the bill allowing FoI requests to be addressed to fund officials.

“Based on my previous FoI experiences, some agencies can pretend that they don’t have data available. At times, some agencies approve your request for information, then they’ll ignore your follow-ups, in effect withholding information,” he said.

Section 43 of House Bill (HB) 6608, which passed on third reading, contains a list of documents from the Maharlika Investment Fund (MIF) and the Maharlika Investment Corp. (MIC) that must be made public: “all investments thereof, planned or negotiated, statements of assets and liabilities (SALNs) of members and officials of the board of directors, advisory board, and risk management unit, the SALNs of those who appointed said members and officials, audit documents of the internal auditor, external auditor, and (the Commission on Audit), and other related documents and information.”

In a statement on Sunday, Speaker Ferdinand Martin G. Romualdez said that Congress has gone through “lengthy and exhaustive plenary deliberations on House Bill 6608” and has “adopted various safeguards to ensure we can achieve the objectives of the Maharlika Investment Fund.”

Mr. Romualdez added that one of the key safeguards in the Maharlika bill is the provision that recognizes the public’s right to FoI requests.

Regarding the lack of public consultation, Neri J. Colmenares, chair of the Bayan Muna Party-list and the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, said in an e-mail, “The only hearing where the public was invited was when we were invited once but it was limited to us just asking questions in one hearing.”

“The fact that certain members of Congress were allowed to propose amendments does not mean public consultations were done,” Mr. Colmenares added.

Mr. Colmenares, who proposed the FoI provision when the bill was at committee level, said that the previous administration’s executive order on how agencies must deal with FoI requests is no guarantee of transparency, because agencies can deny requests.

Executive Order (EO) No. 2, s. 2016 requires the Executive Branch to fully disclose information and State policies, which applies to the MIF.

Mr. San Juan added that the MIF must be required to disclose all companies it invests in, the amount invested, and the gains or losses recognized on a quarterly basis.

“There should also be a list of the full names and bionotes of all MIF officials, consultants, and fund managers posted online. This will be for greater transparency on possible conflict of interest.” Mr. San Juan said.

Despite the amendments included, there are no guarantees that the MIF and MIC won’t fall into corrupt hands, according to Mr. San Juan.

“Political dynasties are so interconnected with big business firms (with bureaucrats and private sector CEOs connected to these dynasties and big business firms exchanging roles through a revolving door, which may be legal but certainly immoral) that no safeguard will be enough unless political dynasties are banned and electoral involvement of big business is at least strictly regulated if not eradicated,” Mr. San Juan said.

Mr. Colmenares said the MIF’s problem is fundamental: “No amendment can cure the Maharlika bill. Sovereign wealth funds are only established when there is excess wealth. We don’t have excess wealth.”

Albay Rep. Edcel C. Lagman, who voted no to the MIF bill, said in a statement, “No avalanche of accepted amendments can cure the inherent chronic and substantial defects of the Maharlika Investment Fund,” adding that the fund needs to focus on “human development (with) sufficient allocations for education, health, employment, food security, and basic infrastructure.”

The Maharlika bill was first filed on Nov. 28. In its original form, it was to take in capital from the two government-run pension funds and the two leading government banks. HB 6608 is a substitute bill that proposed that the fund draw capital instead from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas as well as the two government banks. — Beatriz Marie D. Cruz