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MANILA, Philippines – House appropriations committee vice chairperson Stella Quimbo doubled down on her defense of Vice President Sara Duterte’s confidential expenses in 2022, even offering a new explanation that critics found convoluted, on the first day of plenary debates on the proposed 2024 budget.
It has been established that the confidential expenses worth P125 million incurred by the Office of the Vice President in 2022 were contingent funds that the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) released to Duterte’s office, upon approval by the Office of the President (OP).
What concerned critics was whether the transaction was constitutional, given that a government agency cannot simply transfer funds to another agency because the power to appropriate lies in Congress. They also said there was no line item for confidential fund in the OVP’s 2022 budget, which was prepared by Duterte’s predecessor Leni Robredo.
“The existing line item in the 2022 General Appropriations Act (GAA) for the Office of the Vice President is the good governance project and social services project. That is the existing line item of which one of the objects of expenditure is confidential expense,” Quimbo, the sponsor of the budget, said on Tuesday, September 19.
She also insisted that not everything in the GAA is a line item.
“The only item in the GAA are projects, activities, or programs (PAP). The rest, the object of expenditure, is not a line item,” she claimed. “The PAP in the 2022 budget of the OVP where confidential expense was included was the good governance and social services project. So that confidential expense is authorized and expressly allowed,” Quimbo added.
This explanation did not sit well with Barry Gutierrez, Robredo’s former spokesperson.
“There are two breakdowns of expenses under the 2022 GAA for the OVP budget. A breakdown by program and a breakdown by object of expenditure. Under the second breakdown, there is a specific expense category for confidential, intelligence, and extraordinary expenses, and under the 2022 OVP budget, there is absolutely no item under it for confidential funds,” Gutierrez explained.
“It is ridiculous to suggest that in the absence of this express provision, there is somehow a hidden, unstated item for confidential funds under the more general breakdown according to programs. This is yet another belated and strained effort to look for a justification for an unconstitutional transfer. How many contradictory explanations have they presented now?” he added.
Tension running high
The issue of confidential funds sparked a heated debate in the chamber, even though the OVP was still a week away from defending its budget in the plenary.
Left-leaning lawmakers, who did not get the opportunity to question Vice President Sara Duterte during the committee deliberations due to parliamentary courtesy extended to her office, wasted no time bringing up the subject of confidential funds.
Quimbo and ACT Teachers Representative France Castro talked over each other at one point, prompting a temporary suspension of the deliberations past noon.
Castro, who is House deputy minority leader, wanted a simple yes-or-no answer to her questions, and got visibly annoyed when Quimbo tried to offer a more lengthy response.
“Allow me to explain why [the OVP was entitled to confidential funds in 2022]. The problem is that you don’t want to listen,” Quimbo told Castro.
“My time is being wasted, when we only want a yes-or-no answer so we can move on quickly,” Castro replied.
Quimbo also accused Castro of being confused when the latter said that the OP “gave” the contingent fund to the OVP.
“The contingent fund is a special purpose fund that is not owned by the president, but is subject to the approval of the president,” Quimbo said. “It is very clear that our colleague is confused about the nature of this special purpose fund, which is lodged with the DBM.”
“I am not confused. I know what I’m talking about,” Castro answered. “We saw from the [summary of appropriations] directly from the OVP that the contingent fund was transferred to the OVP.”
Kabataan Representative Raoul Manuel said that Congress is setting a dangerous precedent should it allow government agencies to request confidential funds from the DBM even without an expressed allocation in the GAA.
“That opens the floodgates of hell when it comes to the use of contingent fund based on that assumption,” Manuel said.
Albay 1st District Representative and Liberal Party president Edcel Lagman asserted there is a need to amend the provision on the secret funds, which he said had been prone to abuse.
“I am proposing that in the General Appropriations Bill, we provide strict reporting requirements for purposes of transparency in the utilization of confidential and intelligence funds and have remedial provisions on joint circular 2015-01,” he said.
Lagman was referring to the 2015 joint circular released by five government agencies which provides guidelines concerning confidential and intelligence expenses.
Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin previously said the confidential funds released to the OVP in 2022 were for newly created satellite offices, but it is unclear why Duterte needed secret funds just to operate them.
In past weeks, Quimbo and other government officials have been rushing to Duterte’s defense, coming up with their own explanations, while Duterte resorted to blanket denial of allegations that the funds have been used inappropriately. – Rappler.com