COA: Hard to trace how Duterte intel funds and anti-communist task force money were spent

Commission on Audit (COA) chairperson Michael Aguinaldo admitted to Congress on Wednesday, September 16, that the commission is practically helpless in auditing both President Rodrigo Duterte's intelligence funds, and the funds utilized by the task force he created, the National Task Force on Ending Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).

"We are having difficulty also tracing what budget was actually used by the different departments (in the NTF-ELCAC budget)," Aguinaldo told the House of Representatives on Wednesday during deliberations on COA's 2021 budget.

In the case of Duterte's intelligence funds, Aguinaldo said they are hard to audit precisely because they are confidential – citing as an example the case of informants whose identities will never be revealed because of the sensitive nature of their roles. This makes it impossible for auditors to check the agency's reimbursements and payments for these informants. (READ: [ANALYSIS] Why you should be alarmed by Duterte’s 2021 budget)

Aguinaldo even refused to share his insights on the propriety of giving the Office of the President (OP)  P4.5 billion in intelligence funds for 2021, the same amount given to it this year.

"It's not within our province, it's really a decision more for the Congress and the Senate to determine whether dapat ba silang nabigyan ng ganun kalaking pondo in the face of the circumstances, hindi po kami makapag opinion dyan kasi that's not part of our function," Aguinaldo said.

(Whether the OP should have been given that much in funds in the face of the circumstances, we can't give an opinion because that's not part of our function.)

Representatives France Castro of ACT-Teachers Partylist and Carlos Zarate of Bayan Muna grilled Aguinaldo on what the COA can do to ensure that these 2 controversial budgets are used properly.

NTF-ELCAC funds

The NTF-ELCAC was created in Decemer 2018 through Duterte's Executive Order No. 70, and was tasked to implement a whole-of-nation approach to end communism.

Its budget however is difficult to trace because the expenses are charged against the specific departments that carry out the tasks.

NTF-ELCAC is composed of officials from different agencies, such as its spokesperson, Lorraine Badoy, who is an undersecretary of Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO).

Zarate said it's like the NTF-ELCAC is given a discretion to come up with a menu of its projects, and award it to different agencies.

Aguinaldo said it was not unusual for a task force created by the President to charge expenses against the department. For example, if a task force is made up of different Cabinet secretaries, the expense of one secretary is charged against his department.

"But this (proposed budget) is quite big, so it's something we have to look at carefuly, the amout  of money involved is not typical when you have a task force involving different departments, those are issues we will really be looking at," said Aguinaldo.

For the 2021 budget, P16.4 billion worth of funds for NTF-ELCAC was lodged under the P28.83-billion Local Government Support Fund (LGSF), which is a special purpose fund under Allocation to Local Governments. Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said this would allow the NTF-ELCAC to "play God to the requests of the barangays."

Zarate said in the past, they had tried to write to the different agencies which got a cut of the task force's budget, but all responses referred them back to the NTF-ELCAC.

Aguinaldo said they're looking into whether there's a need for a special audit in this case.

Aguinaldo said that what auditors have been doing so far was to check the disbursement vouchers of the agencies to cross match if the expense was used properly.

"Based on kung ano ma-trace nila, malalaman natin if we need to do a special audit on those expenditures, or if the audit done on those agencies will be sufficient, that's something we still have to determine, we've taken note of the request. We are aware it's a big issue in the 2021 budget," said Aguinaldo.

Duterte's intel funds

COA's powers are more limited, or close to nothing, when it comes to Duterte's intelligence funds, said Aguinaldo.

"Hindi 'yan nao-audit like the normal expenditures are audited, as far as yung budget ng OP for intel, wala na kasi kami dyan eh," said Aguinaldo, on Castro's interpellation.

(It's not audited like the normal expenditures are audited, as far as the Office of the President's budget for intel, we're not involved in that.)

But Aguinaldo said there's a general guideline that intelligence funds cannot be used for capital outlay, representation, salaries and other items like vehicles.

Duterte said part of the OP's intel funds have been used to respond to the coronavirus crisis.

Aguinaldo said what Congress can do is create oversight committees that will monitor the expenses.

"If there is information that has to be divulged, it would probably have to be in an executive session," said Aguinaldo.

Aguinaldo said what Filipinos can find "solace" in is if the Philippines enjoys peace, then probably the intelligence funds were used correctly.

 "If there's peace, that might be an indication that it's being used correctly, but definitely we cannot say for sure. The alternative is, if that is removed, there could be an unfortunate event... to some extent you just have to think that the law enforcement agencies are using it properly," said Aguinaldo. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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