Rodrigo Duterte

She laughs in the face of death threats: meet the fearless grandma taking on corrupt Philippine politicians

Philippines’ top graft-buster Conchita Carpio-Morales, a Ramon Magsaysay Award-winner, will continue her work under new President Rodrigo Duterte

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 August, 2016, 2:22pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 August, 2016, 10:53pm

The Philippines’ top graft-buster, a fearless grandmother who has sued politicians from the president down in her quest to rid her country of corruption, laughs in the face of death threats – literally.

Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, 75, chuckled as she recounted how she was reluctantly obliged to put up a higher fence around her house after a grenade with her initials on it was discovered by her property in 2012.

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“I’m not scared,” she said, her eyes flashing as she thumped her hand on the desk in her office.

The people she investigates “are the ones who are intimidated – that’s why they are trying to scare me”.

She [Morales] is, quite simply, an inspiring public servant
Judges of the Ramon Magsaysay Award

Fighting corruption is dangerous work in the graft-plagued Philippines, where witnesses – even judges – are gunned down and convicted politicians are freed and re-elected.

After four decades in the country’s notoriously corrupt judiciary, Morales was looking forward to retirement when former president Benigno Aquino asked her to head a special body to prosecute corrupt officials as part of his centrepiece anti-graft crusade.

On Wednesday, her “moral courage and commitment to justice in taking head-on one of the most intractable problems in the Philippines”, is set to be recognised when she will be awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award – Asia’s version of the Nobel.

“She is, quite simply, an inspiring public servant,” the judges said.

Born into a family of honest lawyers, Morales had a slow and tricky rise through the ranks due to her incorruptibility, but finally made it to the Supreme Court, where she became the first female magistrate to swear in a president in 2010.

A tireless worker, she now puts in 12-hour days, six days a week at the Ombudsman – Sundays are reserved for the grandchildren – and her discipline is credited with boosting the office’s conviction rate to 75 per cent from just 41 per cent when she took office in 2011.

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Despite progress under Aquino, fighting “endemic” corruption in the Philippines is an uphill battle, she said, adding that corruption flourishes when people think they can get away with it.

“We file cases against top government officials,” she said.

When the “so-called sacred cows are indicted, that should give a signal to people to be more cautious,” she added.

Her biggest frustration came when the Supreme Court freed ex-president Gloria Arroyo and powerful former senator Juan Ponce Enrile despite what Morales insists was solid evidence of graft.

The pair had pleaded ill-health for years and were detained in government hospitals but it was all an act, Morales said: “after you are free ... you swagger!”

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Her tenaciousness has earned her many enemies, including former vice president Jejomar Binay, who called her “stupid” after she charged him with taking huge kickbacks when he was mayor.

But she argues the Philippines’ culture of political patronage is allowing top leaders to evade accountability.

“They act like they’re Robin Hood,” she said.

When her son died of cancer at 41 last year, some of her more unpleasant critics used the personal tragedy to attack her.

“They said it was my karma. See how cruel people are?” she said, adding that she was however “made of strong stuff”.

Morales, who is not due to step down until 2018, will continue her work under new President Rodrigo Duterte, but said her agency will remain impartial.

“We do not take orders from anyone. We are independent. Period.”