Senate barred COA from fund scrutiny

By Christina Mendez, The Philippine Star

Posted at Jan 28 2013 07:58 AM | Updated as of Jan 28 2013 03:58 PM

MANILA, Philippines - From the utilization of public funds to the exact number of people on the payroll of each lawmaker, Congress has kept state auditors in the dark.

With the Senate leading the way, the two chambers of the legislature adopted resolutions in 2011 and 2012 that state auditors said barred them from looking closely at the way Congress spends public funds.

The congressional move has raised questions on where one draws the line between fiscal autonomy and transparency needed for good governance.

Sources said that as early as 2010, state auditors had expressed concern about the lack of transparency in the Senate’s fund utilization.

In its annual audit in 2011, the Commission on Audit (COA) had expressed concern over the practice of issuing mere certifications by lawmakers on the way they utilize their maintenance, operating and other expenses (MOOE).

On July 25, 2011, the two chambers approved Concurrent Resolution No. 10, recognizing the “delicate and unique nature of the functions, operational and organizational structures of the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Commission on Appointments, and the Senate and House Electoral Tribunals.”

The resolution declared that the COA “has consistently allowed” Congress to continue “the current system of liquidation by way of certification,” which recognizes that lawmakers have utilized their MOOE “in the performance of their legislative functions.”

This system, according to Resolution No. 10, “is in keeping with the nature of the performance by the Members of the Senate and the House of Representatives and their respective committees of their legislative, oversight, and constituent functions and responsibilities.”

With the concurrence of the House, which has the power of the purse, the Senate declared that the system of financial accounting and liquidation by each lawmaker is “consistent with applicable accounting and auditing rules” and “shall be maintained.”

Senators adopted the resolution on Aug. 24, 2011; the House followed on Feb. 1, 2012.

“The senators only issue certifications on the receipt and use of funds. They don’t submit receipts. They actually do not practice transparency in the Senate,” a reliable source, who asked not to be named, told The STAR over the weekend.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chairman of the Senate committee on accounts, said yesterday that Resolution No. 10 “was not in our consciousness” when it was passed. He said adoption of the resolution went unnoticed amid the many others that the Senate has approved.

Lacson, who forgoes his annual pork barrel allocation, said he would not mind if the resolution would be rescinded. He said he had ordered his finance officers to “reconstruct” the financial statements of his office.

A source said the COA had also called the attention of the Senate leadership over the apparent tradition of allowing senators to issue a mere “special power of attorney” or SPA in the release of salaries and allowances for their staff.

“The COA is having difficulty verifying the exact number of the senators’ staff, especially when they get their salaries in cash from the Senate budget division,” the source said.

Other Senate employees are on the ATM payroll of the Senate cash division, which allows the COA to keep track of their actual number.

“Whether they have 11 or 42 staff members, it would be hard to know since they get the salaries using SPAs through the Senate cash division,” the source said.

Senate Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano has called for a private audit of Senate funds.

Last week he revealed that in 2012, the Senate MOOE was pegged at P1,462,678,000. Of the amount, P442,415,000 was for locally funded projects under the oversight committees; P589,865,000 was for general administration and support; and P430,578,000 for operations or legislative services.

Cayetano noted that from 2008 to 2013 – during which Juan Ponce Enrile has served as Senate President – the chamber’s MOOE increased from P759 million to P1.57 billion.

The president, the Senate president, the House speaker and heads of constitutional offices enjoy fiscal autonomy and can realign their funding allocations under the annual General Appropriations Act.

“It is on record that the COA raised a question of procedure on this,” the source said, referring to the system of liquidation by certification. “But they came out with a resolution… Isn’t that self-serving? The Constitution may have empowered them to realign funds but not go around COA rules.”

State auditors are trying to make senators submit an accounting of how they have utilized funds realigned from Personnel Services to the MOOE.

Auditors have expressed concern that they were being accused by Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago of not doing their job when senators themselves had barred the itemized audit of their operational funds.

Santiago had raised a howl over the unequal distribution of additional MOOE by Enrile to his colleagues during the Christmas holidays.

Enrile released P1.6 million in three tranches, from funds classified as Senate savings, to 18 senators, and only P250,000 to Santiago, Cayetano, Pia Cayetano and Antonio Trillanes IV. All four are critical of Enrile.

A source said Santiago herself also reported about P4 million in office savings on Dec. 12 and 15, with about P1.3 million allocated for “subscription” purposes.