Showdown over JDF averted

by RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 05 2014 01:54 PM | Updated as of Aug 05 2014 10:11 PM

Tupas: Savings from unfilled posts went to allowances, bonuses, benefits

MANILA - A showdown between the judiciary and the legislature over the alleged pork barrel fund of the judiciary was averted after officials of the Supreme Court (SC) skipped the public hearing where they would have been confronted with questions on how the fund was allegedly abused.

Justice Committee Chair Niel Tupas Jr. noted that as of June 2014, the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF) balance stood at P1.3 billion.

He questioned the amount, noting there are some unreconciled balances. “Hindi po ako naniniwalang P1.3 billion lang as of June 2014. Pera po ito ng mamamayan. Pera ito na may ginawang injustice. Pera mo ito, kaya kailangan.”

Tupas acceded to Sereno’s letter, but it did not stop him from raising questions on the use of the funds.

Tupas pointed out that this is the first time during his watch that the SC did not send a representative to a deliberation of a measure concerning the judiciary.

Citing a Commission on Audit (COA) report, Tupas said some P3 billion meant for unfilled positions became savings of the judiciary and went to allowances, medical benefits, anniversary bonus, loyalty benefits.

He also said that the judiciary gives allowances to local government units.

Tupas also cited a 2012 COA report that some P300 million in JDF funds were invested in high-yield savings accounts. He said the SC is not an investment body.

He noted the 80% of the JDF should be spent on allowances and 20% on court facilities, but the COA found that some JDF funds were given out as loans.

He reminded the public that the JDF is sourced from legal fees and bail bonds. In 2012, the COA said bail bonds amounted to some P2.7 billion.

Tupas earlier proposed a bill seeking to replace the JDF with a fund that will be deposited in the Treasury and subject its use to a formula upon submission of a budget. House committee vice chairman Rodolfo Farinas also filed a similar bill.

The hearing comes a little over a month after the court struck down as unconstitutional several acts in the Disbursement Acceleration Program, and a year short since the high court quashed the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).

In her letter read into the record, Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno asked for time to consult with her colleagues.

Addressing House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Sereno said, “You would appreciate my position that asking the head of a co-equal branch of government to provide her views, comments and recommendations on the 2 bills at this stage might be premature and considering the venue at which it is being proposed to be heard, inappropriate.”

The committee secretariat also read into the record two separate letters from Deputy Court Administrator Raul Villanueva and Deputy Clerk of Court Corazon Ferrer Flores declining participation in today’s hearing. Villanueva and Flores both deferred to their higher-ups.

Sereno as chief magistrate has sole discretion on the disbursement of the JDF by virtue of Presidential Decree 1949.

Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga believes the absence of the court officials is a waiver of the court’s entitlement to due process.

Fariñas, for his part, maintained this is not a probe on the JDF, but merely a hearing on the bills.

Still, he confirms he filed the bill after the SC struck down the PDAF on the argument that lawmakers should be barred from having a role in the disbursement of the funds they appropriated.

He pointed out that the SC imposes, collects, appropriates and disburses the JDF.

Fariñas also noted that PD 1949 is a 30-year old law created during martial law. “It has been abused as we will show. SC, di po pwede mag-generate ng funds. Separation of powers po tayo… Lahat ng function na dapat hiwalay napagsama.”

He asserted that Congress is merely exercising its oversight functions.

He also added that the existing JDF mechanism deprives the public of a venue for redress.

COA, for its part, said the SC’s submissions of reports on collections of the JDF are delayed. The COA said it isn’t able to provide copies of its quarterly JDF audit to all concerned due to lack of manpower.