confidential funds

[OPINION] Canary in the coal mine

Edilberto De Jesus

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

[OPINION] Canary in the coal mine
How the VP/DepEd CIF controversy is resolved will send a signal. Many more issues will surface that require legislative oversight and action. 

Critical Thinking (CT) does not necessarily mean opposing the issues under consideration. Politicians feel safe enough to lecture the youth on the value of cultivating CT and criticizing schools for failing to teach it. CT does require subjecting an issue to rigorous questioning.

But those who practice CT find themselves in dire, dangerous situations. Ask Maria Cielo Magno, who said she was  “forced to resign” her post as finance undersecretary after explaining supply and demand principles that related to the government price cap on rice.  Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin interpreted this academic exposition by the former UP economics professor, which other analysts had also publicly raised, as “clearly set on maligning” the Marcos administration. 

Consider also the red-tagging accusations of government agencies that paint a bullseye target on people who question the basis for these charges. Or note the current obstacles that elected opposition politicians encounter when they question the rationale and use of confidential, intelligence funds (CIF).

Security issues legitimately require CIF. But these are inherently problematic. Because the public receives no report on these secret expenditures or their results, they are prone to corruption, especially in governments struggling with its control.  Doubts on how efficiently and honestly funds were used will arise, not just when they do not produce clearly positive results, but also when their security objectives are clearly questionable.

The current CIF controversy centers on the allocations given to Vice President/Department of Education (DepEd) Secretary Sara Duterte. First, DepEd has operated through its entire history without CIF.  Second, the lavish grants to the two offices are unprecedented. Adding DepEd’s P150 million, the VP/Sec. controls P650 million in CIF. Compare this to the Department of National Defense’s P97 million, NICA’s P341 million, and the amount given to the Coast Guard, now confronting China’s armada of naval and gray ships, of P10 million. This, at the same time that Sec. Sara is also bemoaning DepEd’s shortage of classrooms.

A third complication came with the revelation that VP Sara spent P125 million of 2022 CIF, sourced from the President’s office, for her satellite offices. Opposition legislators questioned 1) her entitlement to 2022 CIF; and 2) their use for satellite offices. This is proper CT inquiry. It is not enough to say that administrative processes were observed. But rather than address the questions directly, VP/Sec. Sara walks out of a hearing. Or the microphone is turned off to avoid more CT questions.

What is disappointing is how some legislators justified her CIF claims. These included, surprisingly, Representative Stella Quimbo, who had led the push for the much-applauded research on “right-sizing” the bureaucracy.  She explained that “everything was legal” because the line item for OVP CIF already existed in 2022 – “it just so happened that the amount was zero.” 

A CT thought might conclude that a zero allocation meant that the fund had not been approved. This was essentially the argument of Party-list Representative France Castro, also citing a Supreme Court 2014 ruling prohibiting the “augmentation” of an unfunded item. In this case, the “augmentation” was from zero to P500 million.  

Senate rules on “confidential information” prohibit its disclosure if it would be “prejudicial to the interest or prestige of the nation, or of governmental activity, or would cause administrative embarrassment, or unwanted injury to an individual or would be advantageous to a foreign nation.”  The VP surely did not want the exposure of her expenditure in 19 days of CIF P125 million, which might not belong to her.  Should this be concealed from the public? 

The CIF issue should sound alarm bells for those concerned with “right-sizing” to ensure, not only that agencies have the right number of staff to address their objectives, but also that scarce government funds support the most essential goals. At this time of concern over tight fiscal space, should critical questioning yield to the call of Representative Sandro Marcos to grant  VP Sara “parliamentary courtesy”?

VP/Sec. Sara, however, has deftly shifted the burden of “unwanted injury.”  She declared that she was “not insisting” on getting CIF, which would be nice to have but not really essential: “we can live without confidential funds.”  How can she be blamed for wanting more money? She deflects public blame for any illegal misallocation from her to the executive officials from DOF and the President’s office and to the legislators who approved her requests. 

Unfortunately, the supermajority in Congress enjoyed by the president in the previous and current administrations (not to mention the majority assembled in the Supreme Court by Rodrigo Duterte) has weakened the constitutional, check-and-balance  principle. The CIF issue has triggered the most alarming threat. The branch of government expected to oversee executive actions is apparently abandoning this duty. The Senate CIF oversight committee has restricted itself with rules against the publication of information on their spending. Violators face suspension or expulsion. 

But all is not yet lost. Representative Quimbo indicated that she would raise questions on the CIF at the plenary session on the budget; “we need to know how the previous funds were spent.” In the case of the OVP and DepEd budgets, there had not been “previous funds.” Sen. President Zubiri has “vowed” to revisit the guidelines on CIF “entitlement, release, use, reporting and audit.” Concerned legislators may yet abort the brazen raiding of the treasury to steal CIF from agencies that desperately need them.

In the 19th century, miners working in underground coal mines kept canaries that react quickly to dangerous gases to alert them to possible gas build-up fatal to humans. How the VP/DepEd CIF controversy is resolved will send a signal. Many more issues will surface that require legislative oversight and action. The critical assessment of this toxic CIF item, if it quietly expires, like the canary, will warn us of the dangerous failure in the check-and-balance mechanism essential to the maintenance of good governance and a democratic system. –

1 comment

Sort by
  1. ET

    Thanks to Edilberto De Jesus for his enlightening article, “Canary in the coal mine.” It is indeed a product of his Critical Thinking (CT), a kind of thought which angered VP Sara Duterte when used to question her 2022 OVP Confidential Fund. I do not believe that the Senate CIF oversight committee will be effective in dealing with this issue because the majority of the Senators are allies of VP Sara Duterte. This is truer with respect to the House of Representatives. Just remember the “turning off the microphone” incident. How about the Supreme Court? There is “… the majority assembled in the Supreme Court by Rodrigo Duterte”; hence it also could not be relied upon. There seems to be nowhere to go because the canary in the coal mine has long been killed ever since Former President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte came to power.

Summarize this article with AI