MANILA, Philippines – It’s his prerogative.
The Commission on Audit (COA) conceded that the law gives Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile discretion over the use of Senate savings.
In a statement on Thursday, January 10, COA Chairperson Grace Pulido Tan cited special provisions of the General Appropriations Act (GAA) 2012 or the budget law.
Tan said that in accordance with the Constitution, the GAA authorizes the Senate President and the House Speaker “to augment any item in the general appropriations law for their respective offices from any savings in other items of their respective appropriations.”
Tan’s statements effectively cleared Enrile of irregularity in his use of the Senate’s savings for senators’ Maintenance and Other Operating Expenses (MOOE).
Following the release of a Philippine Daily Inquirer report on Wednesday, January 9, Enrile admitted excluding 4 of his critics in the list of recipients of the second tranche of the MOOE amounting to P1.6 million per senator last December.
Senators Miriam Defensor Santiago, Pia Cayetano, Alan Peter Cayetano, and Antonio Trillanes IV only got the first tranche worth P600,000 in November plus a Christmas cash gift from Enrile’s office worth P250,000 each.
In her statement, Tan said the GAA also gives the Senate President and the Speaker power to “formulate and implement the organizational structures of their respective offices, to fix and determine the salaries, allowances and other benefits of their respective members, employees and consultants.”
The COA chief also said that both the Senate and the House confirmed the authority of the Senate President and the House Speaker through Concurrent Resolution No 5 adopted in June 2011.
“The Resolution took note of the delicate and unique functions of Congress, which necessitates flexibility in the use of funds and the independence of Congress as co-equal branch of government,” Tan said.
Asked on ANC if Enrile violated the law in selectively giving the MOOE, Tan said, “We can’t answer that because the discretion is vested with the Senate President.”
COA to conduct ‘regular audit’
Despite the controversy, Tan said the COA will just conduct its regular audit of the MOOE. Senators earlier explained to Rappler that the MOOE is really subject to liquidation and auditing by COA.
“Our audit is continuous and regular. We have resident auditors in the Senate, Congress and all offices of government. All transactions are subject to post-audit. That will really pass through the hands of the auditor and the findings are reported.”
Tan added, “That is included in the annual audit report of the agency and for 2012, that will be reported in the 2012 report which will come out between March and June next year.”
The COA chairperson said in auditing the MOOE, auditors check whether the money was used for the intended purpose.
“For example, transportation and travelling, communication expenses, expenses for meetings, that’s MOOE. When we audit it, we check if the money was really used for that.”
Tan, however, said that the COA does not audit salaries, wages, allowances and bonuses. “That’s personal. That’s bonus. If you’re given a bonus, does the management still check where you spent it?”
She also said it is the Department of Budget and Management that will have to determine whether or not to cut down the Senate’s budget if it has too much savings.
Miriam wants deeper probe
Earlier Thursday, Enrile said he welcomes any COA probe.
“We are not hiding anything. There is nothing anomalous in what we have done. It’s all in accordance with the rules of auditing. It’s all in accordance with the practice of the Senate,” Enrile said in an ANC interview.
“It was the practice since 1935, since the time of [President] Cory [Aquino]. It was the practice during the time of [President Fidel] Ramos, Erap (President Joseph Estrada), [President] Gloria [Macapagal-Arroyo], and during the time of President Noynoy,” the Senate President added.
Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago wants COA to conduct a deeper probe of officials’ income. In a letter to Tan dated January 10, Santiago asked her to advise her Committee on Revision of Codes and Laws how to stop officials’ abuse of funds.
“This is to respectfully request a COA study, report, and recommendation on the reported widespread abuse of the constitutional word ‘savings,’ and the constitutional phrase ‘public purpose’ as well as on my proposed Internet upload of the total income (not merely salary) and the discretionary funds of every high public official.”
Treated like added pork barrel?
Santiago said the Constitution allows heads of the branches of government and constitutional commissions to use savings to augment any item in the budget for their office.
“Should not COA enumerate what ‘savings’ are valid, so as to prevent heads of offices from refusing to incur necessary expenses in order to produce ‘savings’ that will be distributed among themselves at yearend?”
She added, “If an office always claims to have savings at yearend, should not the COA resident auditor be duty-bound to recommend that the next year’s appropriation for the same item should be reduced?”
The senator added that the Constitution states, “Discretionary funds appropriated for particular officials shall be distributed only for public purposes to be supported by appropriate vouchers.”
Santiago said, “Is it a valid ‘public purpose’ to give a legislator ‘additional MOOE’ when it is already the end of the year? Can such ‘additional MOOE’ be treated by the senator as additional pork barrel to be spent, not on office expenses, but on alleged charitable donations or public works projects?”
The senator said COA should upload on the Internet the potential income of the following, not just their salaries but also other sources of income:
- Vice President
- Cabinet member
- Armed Forces or police general
- Head and member of constitutional bureau
- Head of nationwide bureau
- Similar high officials
“COA should indicate the discretionary funds at the disposal of such high public officials, whatever they are called: confidential funds, intelligence funds, etc. This would serve the constitutional purpose of accountability.” – Rappler.com