Commission on Audit

COA: Audit reports made public for transparency

Lian Buan
(2nd UPDATE) The Commission on Audit restates its mandate after President Duterte questioned its findings on the Department of Health's deficient use of pandemic funds

The Commission on Audit (COA) said on Tuesday, August 17, that it publishes the annual audit reports of government agencies for transparency.

“COA publishes the Annual and other Audit Reports only in our website for transparency purposes,” said Jonathan Beltran of COA’s public information office after Rappler sought the constitutional body’s comment on President Rodrigo Duterte’s latest attacks on state auditors.

In a televised address on Monday, August 16, Duterte castigated COA for flagging the Department of Health or DOH’s deficient use of P67 billion worth of pandemic funds in 2020: “Stop that flagging, god damn it! You make a report, do not flag and do not publish it.”

Asked for a statement on their mandate, Beltran cited the Constitution. “Sections 2(1), 2(2) and 3 are explicit and instructive,” he said.

Section 2(1) says COA has the power, authority and duty to examine and audit all accounts of government, while Section 2(2) says COA also has the exclusive authority to define the scope of the audit and examination.

COA declined Rappler’s request for an interview on the DOH audit report itself.

“With apologies, we do not grant interviews re: audit of pandemic funds. We refrain from giving reactions.  We also cannot offer any additional information other than those included in our audit reports. Thank you so much for understanding our situation,” Beltran said.

The annual reports are the result of a year-long audit by resident auditors deployed to government agencies. Agencies are first given the confidential audit observation memorandum (AOM), which they can answer or explain. The public annual report will contain the findings, the agency’s explanation, and in some cases, auditors’ rejoinder.

The 1987 Constitution, which created COA, states: “No law shall be passed exempting any entity of the Government or its subsidiary in any guise whatever, or any investment of public funds, from the jurisdiction of the Commission on Audit.”

COA chairman: ‘Tuloy pa rin kami’

COA chairman Michael Aguinaldo told the House of Representatives on Tuesday, August 17, that they will carry on despite the attacks.

Tuloy pa rin kami (We will carry on), we have a constitutional mandate, we have to comply with that, you know I do have a force of about 9,000 people in COA who are very dedicated, very professional, and you know who are committed to do the work that they do,” Aguinaldo said.

On Facebook, former COA commissioner Jose Fabia responded to the latest verbal attacks on COA, describing the agency as patriotic.

“COA nating mahal. Tunay na nagmamahal sa bayan. Salamat sa pagtupad sa inyong sinumpaang tungkulin (Our beloved COA, which truly loves the nation. Thank you for fulfilling your sworn duty),” Fabia said.

Several senators had also called out Duterte for castigating COA over the audit report, and reminded him that “no one can dictate” on the commission. (READ: Duterte ‘out of line’ for castigating COA – senators)

PNP chief meddles

Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Police General Guillermo Eleazar, whose office has no direct business with the COA, said the agency’s audit reports should not be publicized by the media.

Kaya nga lang, pinakamaganda sana, ‘wag na lang sanang ipa-media, kagaya no’ng dating sitwasyon noon na dire-diretso lang sa amin,” Eleazar said during the Kapihan sa Manila Bay event on Wednesday, August 18.

(It would be good if these COA reports were not reported by the media, just like the old times, when the reports were delivered straight to us.)

He added: “Recently napansin namin na talagang lumalabas sa media, at well, we can say na talagang kapag lumabas ‘yon, even though the intention of the COA is napakaganda, pero ‘pag isinulat na po kasi ‘yan, hindi naman po natin masisi ang ating mga kasamahan sa media, pero kapag nasulat na para bang nagkasala na ang ating mga ahensya.”

(Recently, we’ve noticed that the media has been releasing the reports. Even though the COA has good intentions, once the media writes about these reports – and we can’t blame our friends from the media – they put our agencies in a bad light.)

Eleazar made the remarks even though audit reports are not given directly to journalists but are uploaded instead to the COA’s website for transparency.

A day after his controversial remarks, Eleazar retracted his statement.

“I stand corrected. During a consultation, which I initiated last night with concerned officials of the Philippine National Police, the entire process on how disbursements work and up to the level of COA intervention were discussed. And it was made clear to me that the COA does not issue press statements and instead posts its audit reports on its website as part of its constitutional mandate for transparency,” the PNP chief said in a statement on Thursday, August 19.

Attacks on COA

It’s not the first time that Duterte hurled verbal attacks on state auditors.

In September 2018, Duterte said the resident auditor of the Ilocos Norte provincial government should be pushed down the stairs. That was the president’s response to former governor now senator Imee Marcos who complained about COA’s prohibitions on the province’s spending.

In January 2019, Duterte told local government officials to kidnap and torture COA personnel for making life difficult for them.

COA’s report on the DOH drew massive public backlash, as auditors found billions of unused pandemic funds, including P11 billion supposedly for hazard pay of front liners, and more than P3 billion in foreign aid.

COA also flagged the DOH for transferring P42.4 billion worth of COVID-19 funds to different government agencies, either for procurement or payment for supplies, or for implementation or fielding out the programs. These transfers had no required memorandum of agreement and other supporting documents, “thus posing questions on regularity of transactions,” said COA.

Just days after Malacañang said that Duterte would withhold judgment on the COA findings until the DOH responds to them and the whole audit process is completed, the President himself shielded Health Secretary Francisco Duque III from renewed resignation calls and said there was no corruption involved in the COVID-19 funds.

Last week, amid negative public sentiment, COA’s central office issued a rare press clarification saying there was no finding that funds were lost due to corruption.

Indeed, annual audit reports do not make corruption findings. In special instances, COA can do a fraud audit or even a special audit. COA can also issue notices of disallowance, which has the effect of invalidating the transaction and ordering the agency to return the money to the national treasury.

COA’s lack of prosecutorial power enables agencies to contest these notices for years. It also means that agencies can ignore the recommendations, but COA can report yearly if the agencies have complied or not.

The agencies that can launch an investigation even in the absence of a complaint are the Office of the Ombudsman and the Department of Justice (DOJ). They have done so in the past without the benefit of an audit report, but both are taking a passive stance and said they will let COA process run its course.

COA chairman Michael Aguinaldo, an Aquino appointee will retire in March 2022. Commissioner Roland Pondoc was appointed by Duterte in 2018. The 3rd slot in the 3-man commission is still unfilled, up for Duterte’s appointment. – with reports from Jairo Bolledo and Tina Ganzon-Ozaeta/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.