Alejandro Ordoñez is one of the most powerful men in Colombian politics. As Inspector General (Procurador General), he is the head of a huge bureaucracy whose aim is, in part, to investigate and punish public officials for legal violations. It may be hard for Americans to understand the role Ordoñez plays in Colombia’s institutional regime, as there is no equivalent official in the U.S. legal system. Unlike the Prosecutor General, Colombia’s Inspector General cannot ask that people be sent to jail; the sanctions he can impose are exclusively administrative. The IG can levy fines on officials who violate the law, suspend, or even impeach them, often issuing an order preventing the defendant from holding any public office for a term of years.
This makes the powerful afraid of Ordoñez. In his hands he holds the authority to decree their political death, with all the reputational and economic loss it entails. Moreover, the IG is not shy when it comes to using his constitutional powers. In 2011, Ordoñez impeached twenty-one mayors and two governors, and otherwise sanctioned another eighty-five mayors and six governors. When the lights went off for former Bogota Mayor Samuel Moreno’s political future, it was no other but Ordoñez who pulled the plug. And he showed exactly the same resolve when he sanctioned Bernardo Moreno, Andres Felipe Arias and Sabas Pretelt, all important allies of former President Alvaro Uribe.
Even those who do not share Ordoñez’s conservative ideas on abortion, religion and gay marriage (issues on which he has also made his voice heard) have to agree that he works hard in his crusade against corruption. In a country so used to political deviance, Ordoñez often appears as a much-needed savior. Never before had Colombia had such an active IG who took his constitutional duties so seriously.
Perhaps too seriously. Taking advantage of the uncertainty of the law, Ordoñez has claimed for himself the power to impeach members of Congress. Colombia’s Constitution (Art. 278) reads that the IG “shall have the power to impeach . . . any public official who violates the law or the Constitution,” and members of Congress are understood to be public officials. However, the constitutional document is so long, that it is sometimes inconsistent: another article (184) establishes that “the impeachment of members of Congress shall be decreed by the Council of State”, Colombia’s highest administrative law court.
With this ambiguity in place, Ordoñez has seen fit to impeach legislators of the like of Piedad Cordoba (for her rapport with members of FARC), Rocío Arias (for her support of paramilitary groups), German Olano (for his involvement in Bogota’s corruption “carrousel”), and Ivan Moreno (same). All of them are banned from public office for fifteen years or more. All of them have accused Ordoñez of usurping the powers of the Council of State.
I am not here to defend any of these characters. Cordoba, Olano and Moreno had their day in court before Ordoñez, and he found them liable for violations of law. Colombian politics is probably better off without them on board. However, there are powerful legal and policy arguments that argue against the IG’s capacity to impeach members of the legislative branch. This is not trivial legalese. At heart lies the system of checks and balances that keeps the Colombian democracy running.
The first argument against Ordoñez is the fact that he is elected by the same people he is supposed to oversee –the Senate. How idiotic. Even the most naïve of persons can see the inevitable conflict of interest this creates. Perhaps Ordoñez has not hesitated to use his power against those charged with appointing him, but there is an ever-present danger of under-enforcement by future IGs. Even worse, one can imagine future IGs raising bogus charges against Senators if they vote for laws that the IG does not like, or against their reelection. True independence calls for another arrangement.
Another argument is related to the text of the Constitution. Articles 228 and 231 say that “the administration of justice is a public function” and that Colombia’s judicial bodies are public corporations. Yet, nobody would say that the IG has the inherent power to impeach judges (that privilege remains with another office, Colegio Superior de la Judicatura), even if under the Constitution public officials are defined as “those who are members of public corporations.” Yet, Ordoñez’s claim about his power to impeach legislators rests on equally shaky ground. The better answer is to say that the drafters of the Constitution gave the Council of State the exclusive power to impeach members of Congress, just as the Judicatura has exclusive jurisdiction to investigate judges. Ordoñez keeps the privilege of investigating those who are part of the executive branch (except the President). Nice, neat separation of powers at work.
Finally, I want to make an argument about power. Generally, it is good to be skeptical about someone holding too much of it, especially if it goes unchecked. Ordoñez has been a remarkable IG, and even if he has used his office to bring more accountability to Colombian politics, the next person in his shoes could be less righteous. I am unwilling to give one man the ability to impeach those who were elected at the ballot box to represent the people of Colombia assembled in Congress.
With the nasty stories coming out of the legislative branch in the past few years, one cannot be blamed for wanting someone to do something about it. Anything. But lest it be thought that I am writing on the side of impunity, let me emphasize that Colombia’s high courts (the Council of State and the Supreme Court, all collegiate bodies as opposed to one-man shows) would still have jurisdiction to punish corrupt members of Congress. The Supreme Court has stepped up, and many criminals who sat in Congress are now behind bars. And in any case, the blessing and the curse of democratic nations is that they get the leaders they deserve, and therefore our power as a people begins on election day.
The Constitutional Court is expected to rule soon on this matter, as Piedad Cordoba was able to bring her impeachment case before it. Should she win, she will be able to run again for public office, which would mark her comeback to political life, for good or for bad. Rocio Arias, Ivan Moreno and German Olano could also see their bans invalidated, and, if they are not in jail, they would be able to run again or return to Congress. That would certainly be a defeat for Ordoñez, but, oddly enough, it would perhaps mean a victory for sound, democratic institutions.