The Philippines is reputed to be one of the countries where large state resources are diverted to private gain and corruption is so “normalized” as to corrupt public morality itself. The creation of the Office of the Ombudsman (OMB) in 1987 was meant to be a major step in the country’s anti-corruption campaign, yet like other bodies before it, the OMB failed to live up to its promise. The justice system remained sluggish; corruption cases mostly involved low-level public officials; and the people’s confidence in government’s resolve to root out corruption was despairingly low. This was the daunting challenge that Conchita Carpio Morales faced when she was appointed Ombudsman in 2011.

With an impressive judicial career in the regional trial court system, then in the Court of Appeals, and finally as justice of the Supreme Court, she brought her trademark qualities of professionalism, competence, integrity, and equanimity to her work as Ombudsman. In her strict, scrupulous style, she upgraded OMB’s capabilities; revolutionized its focus with the designation of deputy ombudsmen for environmental and investment concerns, and improved OMB’s responsiveness to public assistance appeals. The independence and quality of OMB’s fact-finding investigations, evidence build-up, prosecution strategies and case management were strengthened, to ensure that meritorious cases would not be sabotaged, withdrawn, or dismissed. The results?  Her zero backlog program has already reduced OMB’s delayed work,  and within four years, the conviction rate of cases handled by OMB rose from 33.3 percent to 74.5 percent.

To restore the people’s faith in the rule of law, she prioritized the corruption cases involving forty high-ranking officials,  boldly imposed strict administrative sanctions against erring individuals, filed cases against a former president, a former vice-president, incumbent senators, congressmen, and governors. She even managed to secure bank records in a landmark impeachment case against the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Recognizing that corruption is also caused by weak systems,  she launched an integrity management-based program that mobilizes government agencies and the public and addresses the lack of strategy and direction in the overall anti-corruption campaign.

While her work is unfinished, and the challenge is not hers alone, already Conchita Carpio Morales has radically improved the efficacy and credibility of the OMB.  Despite death threats, she remains unfazed, does not sensationalize her efforts and always works within the law even as she pushes its limits.