Commission on Audit

[OPINION] ‘We cannot have a country run by a thief’

John Molo

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[OPINION] ‘We cannot have a country run by a thief’

Illustration by Nico Villarete

'Keeping a president away from COA is crucial for accountability. And the COA’s findings about the pandemic funds show us why.'

Those were the words of the late Senator Joker Arroyo during the impeachment trial of former president Estrada. That trial marked the first time a president was charged with bribery, corruption, and culpable violation of the Constitution before the Senate. And true to his reputation as the legislature’s firebrand, Sen. Arroyo’s opening argument as lead prosecutor is a masterclass in elocution. 

These words resonate as the administration’s latest scandal unfolds. Thanks to the brave auditors of COA, the public got a glimpse of how pandemic funds have been inefficiently utilized and “misplaced” by key government agencies. This is not the first time the COA played a key role in our history. We were a few feet away from then-COA chair Grace Pulido-Tan when she repeated her description of the pork barrel anomalies that their auditors uncovered. Kahindik-hindik (Utterly revolting). The COA chair literally shuddered in anger and disgust as she testified before the Supreme Court during the PDAF oral arguments. Those of us who fought that battle agree that victory would not have been possible without the COA’s Special Audit Report.      

This is why the COA deserves our support. In a system plagued by corruption and personality-based policies, it stands as an exception. Every year, come hell or high water, it releases its annual audits and posts them on its official website for transparency. (It does not “release them to the media.”) It has done this across administrations, regardless of who is President. (COA went after PDAF during PNoy’s time.) If one were to list the few that qualify as “strong institutions” in this country, it is likely the COA would top it. 

For the President to attack the COA betrays his misunderstanding of its constitutional role. He bewails being tagged as “guilty” without due process. A curious complaint coming from the proud instigator of EJKs (“My only sin is the extrajudicial killings,” 2018). Besides, that is not how an independent constitutional commission works. The Executive spends the public funds, the COA tells the public where their money actually went. 

Keeping a president away from COA is crucial for accountability. And the COA’s findings about the pandemic funds show us why. For months, we have wondered why the Health Secretary remained impervious despite a grossly mismanaged pandemic response. We were also equally baffled by the dogged insistence to require face shields. Thanks to the COA and eagle-eyed senators like Drilon and Gordon, we are now beginning to understand what connects face shields and the DOH, as well as why they are both “indispensable” in the President’s eyes. And it seems this is just the tip of the iceberg.   

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Going into an election year, the administration has requested a P5.024-trillion budget. P4.5 billion of that will be funneled into “confidential” or “intelligence” funds of the Office of the President. And on this, the President has said, “Others said I was asking for it because I will use it as a campaign. Wala akong kandidato, hindi ko nga alam kung sino tatakbo.” Interesting. Perhaps he forgot what he said this March: “Itong si Senator Bong Go, pababa kami sa eroplano, sabi niya na ‘Sir, may hingin sana ako saýo ng pabor.’ Sabi ko, ‘Ano?’…Sabihin daw sa inyo, gusto niya maging president.” He might also have forgotten that he recently boasted he’ll bring sacks of money on the campaign trail (“[I]kakampanya ko kayo, city for city, totoo ‘yan…. At saka magdala ako ng maraming pera…por sako kung mayroon”.) 

With declarations like these, legislators are right to be worried about the huge amounts going into the 2022 Budget. Like the NTF-ELCAC’s P28 billion. Earlier this year, Senator Drilon said, “These are not small funds. Magagamit sa pulitika iyan.” As did Senator Binay who observed that in contrast, the RITM budget for 2022 was slashed by P170 million: “Ang kalaban natin ay COVID. Mas importante ba ang ELCAC kaysa RITM?”   

It is difficult to abide by the presumption of regularity when presidential statements go the opposite way (“sako-sakong pera”) or call those who believe them as “stupid” (like the soldiers and fishermen who relied on his WPS promise). Consider this one: “I’m tired. Talagang gusto ko na ring mag-resign. I’m not happy anymore.” A pretense put to rest by this week’s declaration, “Gusto talaga ninyo? Oh, sige, tatakbo ako ng bise presidente.” The “plot twist” came a few hours after. It seems his national address was spliced to exclude a portion wherein he stated he will not run if his daughter decides to run for president. And in a further “plot twist,” his own daughter Mayor Duterte-Carpio then released a statement calling on him and his assistant to “own up publicly” to their real intentions. 

Wizened hacks say this is “political cha-cha.” One can hardly care. The relevant take away here is that a member of his own family has called out the chief executive for not being upfront. What do we make of this at a time when people are literally dying in hospital tents, doctors and nurses are unpaid, and hospitals are threatening to “disengage” from PhilHealth due to non-payment? A responsible leadership would spare us the theater and attend to the nation. What we are saddled with is one that deliberately resorts to theater (or telenovela antics) to divert our attention. Despite the ongoing COVID surge, he spends time talking about Sen. De Lima, former secretary Mar Roxas, or his discovery of a mayor’s old sexy photos. The last one raised questions on how much executive time and resources were spent to research and analyze the popular mayor’s former depictions of states of undress.    

Still, rather than march to his beat, we should keep track of how many times we have been misled or fed distractions. Starting with the trifecta that bamboozled 16 million: “Ending criminalities (sic) in 2016”; “Ending corruption in 2016”; “Ending illegal drugs and human trafficking in 2016.”  Or other items like, “Ending political dynasties in 2018” or “Ending poverty in 2018.” The last one is quite interesting, considering that legislators like Cong. Stella Quimbo are still begging the administration to fund direct relief measures like Bayanihan 3. We were supposed to be an “economic power in Asia in 2019.” Instead, we are the region’s economic laggard with some of the highest unemployment rates. Things are so bad the economic team incredulously used it to issue a press release crowing that the country has “exited recession.” Turns out, it was spin using the economic equivalent of the UP Men’s Basketball Team’s battle cry – “Nowhere to go but UP.” 

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These instances allow us to take full stock of the hole we are in, and who placed us here. It puts into focus the single greatest source of our ongoing crisis in governance. Words matter. And a President’s words matter the most. To his troops, it is an order from their commander-in-chief. To the bureaucracy, it is policy. To the country, it is his commitment. “Kung maniwala kayo, e di gago kayo.” These are the words of a man who revels in deceiving others and expects those around him to act as he does. As one writer observed, when a Chief Executive suggests that the COA should “reconfigure” its findings, what he really means is that “he wants them to lie.”

“We cannot have a country run by a thief,” so said Sen. Arroyo. And why is this relevant when the COA report didn’t explicitly mention “corruption?” Because we grasp its full meaning when read with one of our oldest sayings: “Kapatid ng sinungaling ang magnanakaw.” –

John Molo is a commercial law litigator who enjoys reading and learning about the Constitution and its intersection with politics. He teaches Constitutional Law at UP Law-BGC, where he also chairs the Political Law Cluster of the Faculty. He is the president of the Harvard Law School Association of the Philippines, and a past chairman of the IBP Law Journal. He led the team that sued the Aquino administration and invalidated the PDAF.

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