MANILA, Philippines – Is the car of the Commission on Audit (COA) the “quick-moving project” the budget department said it needed to fund with realigned allocations?
Senator Jinggoy Estrada raised this question after he got COA Chairperson Grace Pulido-Tan to admit that her agency was also a beneficiary of funds from the administration’s controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).
After grilling Tan at a budget hearing in October, Estrada was not yet done interrogating the COA chief. This time, he brought his gripes against her to the Senate plenary deliberations on the COA budget late Monday night, November 25. The hour-long deliberations ended at 11:12 pm.
While senators usually defend agencies’ budgets at the plenary stage, the Senate agreed to relax its rules so Tan could directly answer Estrada’s questions.
Estrada said, “Was DAP funds used to purchase the service vehicle for Commissioner [Heidi] Mendoza?”
Tan said yes and added that she belatedly found out that funds from the DAP were also used for COA’s purchase of computers and hiring of IT and litigation experts. The COA chief clarified that she did not request that the funds come from the DAP.
“When we made the request earlier on in my term, I think DAP hadn’t existed yet. Our request was back in 2011,” Tan told Estrada.
Estrada though used her admission to question Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Secretary Florencio Abad’s statements about the purpose and use of the DAP.
He quoted Abad’s press release saying that the DAP was designed to ramp-up spending and help accelerate economic expansion. “Releases from DAP were used for quick moving projects that support Aquino administration’s socio-economic social platform.”
The senator then quipped, “So isa pala sa project ng administration ay pagbili ng kotse to ramp up spending? Isa pala sa quick-moving project na sabi ni Secretary Abad ay pambili ng kotse?”
(So one of the administration’s projects to ramp up spending is to buy a car? One of the quick-moving projects that Secretary Abad is saying is to purchase a car?)
Tan curtly replied: “That’s already with the Supreme Court. I decline to comment.”
Estrada said: “The COA cannot be objective in its audit on the propriety, legality of DAP when the agency is a recipient and beneficiary of DAP. Even if there is no irregularity, just the same.”
The Supreme Court is deliberating the legality of the DAP after petitioners and legal experts pointed out that it is unconstitutional because it was not included in the budget and undermined Congress’ power of the purse. Critics called it “an invention of the budget department” and “a budget within the budget.”
Besides the DAP, Estrada also grilled Tan about her travels, even keeping a record of how many times she left the country. COA had a budget of P78 million for travels in 2013 and it increased to P88 million in 2014.
Estrada said, “In 2011, you travelled 9 times; in 2012, 10 times; in 2013, 9 times as of Sept 2013.”
The COA chief also explained that “5 to 6 out of 10” of her travels were sponsored by international organizations like the World Bank. Estrada then asked Tan whether the allowances foreign groups give her can be considered indirect compensation.
Tan said: “No, it’s not income. It’s per diem. Actually, the amount is not enough so if there are many of us in the group, we room together.”
Estrada turned her ire on Tan after the COA released an audit report naming him as one of the legislators who repeatedly endorsed allegedly bogus non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of Janet Lim Napoles in the pork barrel scam. Estrada allegedly got millions of pesos in kickbacks and is now facing a plunder complaint.
The feisty Tan held her ground despite Estrada’s relentless questioning and at times answered back. The senator again brought up an issue he raised previously: that it is the duty of implementing agencies, not lawmakers, to check the legitimacy of NGOs.
He said, “Who determines if the NGO is bogus? As a legislator, it’s not my responsibility to determine whether NGO is legitimate or not. How the hell will I know?…. Sino namang sira ulong senador ang magbibigay ng pera sa bogus NGO?” (Which legislator out of his mind will give money to a bogus NGO?)
Estrada also asked, “Why will you issue a notice of disallowance to me when I do not hold government funds?”
Tan then said, “Under the law and the rules, all persons we found in the audit to be involved in the disbursement and use of the funds will be issued a notice of disallowance.”
She addressed him: “You have memoranda of agreement (MOA) signed by your staff and one of the provisions there is a warranty or undertaking on the part of the senator saying you warrant that this NGO is bona fide, legitimate to carry out, implement the project.”
Tan continued: “So it’s not merely an endorsement from your end recommending the NGO to be a partner but also a positive act by contract. That, to us, is indication of your participation in the disbursement of the money given to the NGO.”
Tan replied, “I think it was your representative [who signed the MOA] but you had a letter designating your staff.”
Estrada said the COA’s resident auditors must also be held liable. He said they should have stopped the fund releases if they already detected irregularities.
Tan said that until 2009, the COA had no resident auditor in the National Agribusiness Corporation (NABCOR), one of the implementing agencies that, based on the COA report, cornered the bulk of the pork barrel releases.
“The NBI (National Bureau of Investigation), Ombudsman are also investigating [the resident auditors]. Two of our auditors are already included in charge sheet,” Tan revealed.
In his interpellation, Estrada repeated questions he already raised during the committee hearings for the COA budget and his privilege speech in September.
Estrada again asked Tan about “unidentified legislators” in the COA report. Tan explained that the COA was unable to name all the legislators because the budget department did not give the agency all of the documents it needed, especially the notice of cash allocation which names from which legislator the funds came.
The senator again insinuated that the DBM can choose to withhold releasing the documents of its allies.
“Kawawa naman pala kami. Kami ang may pangalan, may nakita sa diyaryo, kami ang sangkot sa scam. This is what I said selective justice.” (I pity the 3 of us. We are the ones with names, seen in newspapers, implicated in the scam.)
Estrada asked Tan to identify the legislators the COA found to have anomalies or irregularities in their pork barrel funds.
Here, Tan pointed out: “It’s not that I don’t want to answer questions. I just find it weird because during your speech, you quoted extensively from our report. And all questions you’re asking me are in our report so I don’t know why you have to ask me pa (still).”
Estrada then tried to imply that Tan violated a COA resolution by hiring her daughter as an executive assistant. Estrada cited COA resolution 2012-013 barring COA employees from hiring relatives.
Tan responded: “Can you please read until the end, up to the exceptions? It says an exception is when the appointment is confidential and co-terminous, which is the appointment of my daughter.”
At this point, Estrada decided to end his interpellation. The Senate finally approved the COA budget of P7.9 billion.