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Cablegate: President Arroyo Appoints New Ombudsman to Lead

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E.O. 12958: N/A


B. MANILA 5012
C. MANILA 4693

1. (U) This message is Sensitive But Unclassified -- Please
handle accordingly.

2. (SBU) Summary: President Arroyo has named her Chief
Legal Counsel, Maria Merceditas "Mercy" Gutierrez, as the
new Ombudsman for the Philippines. Gutierrez, a 1995
participant in the State Department's International Visitor
Program, was chosen over two other highly-qualified
nominees. She is replacing Simeon Marcelo, who is credited
with ramping up the GRP's anti-corruption efforts.
Gutierrez is regarded as competent and honest, with
significant experience in government. End Summary.

President Appoints First Woman Ombudsman

3. (U) On November 30, President Arroyo named her 56 year-
old Chief Legal Counsel, Maria Merceditas "Mercy" Gutierrez,
as the head of the Ombudsman's Office, an independent GRP
agency which fights graft and other illegal diversions of
governmental resources. Gutierrez took up her new position
on December 1. Gutierrez is replacing Simeon Marcelo, who
played a vital role in strengthening the GRP's anti-
corruption efforts, and who resigned on November 30. She is
the first woman to occupy this position and will serve a
seven-year term that ends in 2012.

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The Selection Process

4. (U) The GRP's Judicial and Bar Council began reviewing
possible candidates after Marcelo announced on September 30
his intention to resign at the end of November for health
reasons (see refs for background). Starting with a list of
14 candidates, the eight-member Council submitted its short
list of three nominees to President Arroyo during a November
21 meeting. In addition to Gutierrez, the other two
nominees were:

-- Diosdado Peralta, Associate Justice of the Sandiganbayan
(Anti-Graft Court); and,
-- Victor Fernandez, Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon.

5. (U) In making its final selection, the Judicial and Bar
Council unanimously endorsed Gutierrez. Peralta and
Fernandez received the second and third highest number of
nominations. Arroyo accepted the Council's recommendation
and named Gutierrez to the slot later in the month.

Assisted by USAID Project

6. (U) A USAID-funded project assisted the Judicial and Bar
Council, civil society groups, and the media to inform the
selection process and enhance its transparency. The NGO
"Transparency and Accountability Network" (TAN), working
with the Asia Foundation, launched a project on October 26
called "Ombudsman Appointment Watch II." This project
followed TAN's earlier success with "Ombudsman Watch" in
2002 that resulted in the appointment of Marcelo.

7. (SBU) In response to lobbying by TAN, the Council was
more flexible about its arrangements, and in fact agreed to
an extension to allow additional candidates to apply for the
Ombudsman job. There were some other clear and favorable
improvements in the selection process this time around. For
example, the Deputy Ombudsman, Margarito Gervacio, was not
chosen among the top three (Gervacio was not highly
regarded, but normally would have been a contender due to
his position); instead, a junior deputy (Fernandez) got the
nod -- someone of whom outgoing Ombudsman Marcelo thought
more highly.

Bio-Data on Gutierrez

8. (SBU) Gutierrez is considered very close to President
Arroyo and is believed to have her ear. Prior to becoming
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel, Gutierrez was Acting
Secretary of Justice -- the first woman to hold this

position -- from November 2002 to January 2003 and again
from December 2003 to August 2004. During these timeframes,
Gutierrez built up the anti-trafficking in persons task
force and made that issue a priority at the Philippine
Department of Justice (PDOJ). Between 1983 and 2003, she
served variously at the PDOJ as Undersecretary, Assistant
Chief State Counsel and Senior State Counsel, and on the
legal staff.

9. (U) Gutierrez has also been Chairperson of the
Presidential Human Rights Committee and President Arroyo's
designated "anti-corruption czarina" to coordinate with the
Presidential Anti-Graft Commission. In 1972, she received
her law degree from Ateneo de Manila University, where she
was a classmate of President Arroyo's husband Mike Arroyo.
In 1995, Gutierrez participated in a State Department
International Visitor Program on "The U.S. Criminal Justice
System." She is married with four children.

Generally Positive but Cautious Reaction

10. (U) Public reaction to the news of Gutierrez's
appointment has generally been positive but cautious. In
the words of Senate President Franklin Drilon (who is anti-
Arroyo), the "public will be watching" Gutierrez's first
actions carefully. Media commentary and statements by
Opposition politicians have highlighted Gutierrez's close
ties to the First Family but have not passed judgment on her
qualifications. At a minimum, she has been called
"competent," while pro-government officials consider her
highly experienced and well qualified for the top anti-
corruption job. Former PDOJ colleagues describe her as
independent (in formulating legal opinions), action-
oriented, low-key, honest, and competent.


11. (SBU) President Arroyo's swift appointment of Gutierrez
is positive because it avoids an undesirable vacancy in the
Ombudsman's Office. The challenge is for Gutierrez to prove
that she is a worthy successor to the highly respected
Simeon Marcelo, under whose watch the conviction rate at the
Ombudsman's Office increased significantly. Although
Gutierrez may have had the "inside track" during the
selection process due to her Malacanang connections, she is
qualified and experienced in the opinion of most observers.
Nonetheless, the Philippine public will be watching
Gutierrez closely to see whether her close ties to the First
Family might affect her independence and effectiveness as
Ombudsman. With anti-corruption efforts going in the right
direction of late (see ref A regarding the recent court
martial of a corrupt retired general), it is vital that
Gutierrez keep up the momentum.

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