House to continue JDF probe

By Jess Diaz, The Philippine Star

Posted at Aug 16 2014 09:31 AM | Updated as of Aug 16 2014 05:31 PM

MANILA, Philippines - The House of Representatives will continue its investigation into the controversial Judiciary Development Fund (JDF) despite the decision of the Supreme Court (SC) to stay away from the inquiry.

Congressmen have labeled the JDF as the SC’s pork barrel.

“We will continue the hearings on the JDF. We will set the continuation of the inquiry for next month,” Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr., who chairs the House committee on justice, said yesterday.

“The legislative work of the committee to make the use of public funds more transparent and public officers more accountable cannot be held hostage by the refusal of the Supreme Court to participate,” Tupas said.

He said the SC is conveniently hiding behind the concept of judicial independence and the unresolved cases involving the equally controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).

He pointed out that the DAP issue has no relation at all to the two pending bills that seek to dismantle the JDF as a discretionary fund of the SC, transfer it to the national treasury and let Congress appropriate the money.

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno snubbed the Tupas committee’s first hearing on Aug. 5.

She wrote Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., saying her attendance in the inquiry would be “premature” and “inappropriate.”

She sent Belmonte a second letter dated Aug. 13 informing him that no SC justice or representative would attend the justice committee’s hearings until the motions asking the high court to reconsider its decisions striking DAP and the Priority Development Assistance Fund as unconstitutional are resolved.

“In order to preserve judicial independence and the integrity of the ongoing deliberations on the two cases, may I request on behalf of the Supreme Court, that until the motions for reconsideration are resolved, no member, official or employee of the judiciary be involved by the committee on justice in the proceedings on House Bills Nos. 4690 and 4738 regarding the Judiciary Development Fund,” Sereno said.

“The DAP cases are now the subject of motions for reconsideration, including one filed by the House of Representatives,” she said.

“With your indulgence and those of your esteemed colleagues in the House of Representatives, officials of the Supreme Court shall be available to the committee on justice as soon as the resolution of the motions for reconsideration becomes final,” she said.

During the House appropriations committee hearing on the judiciary’s P20.3-billion budget for 2015, Justices Diosdado Peralta and Bienvenido Reyes and deputy court administrator Raul Villanueva refused to answer questions about the JDF.

Villanueva, who served as SC budget presenter and spokesman, repeatedly referred to Sereno’s second letter to Belmonte whenever committee members raised questions about the JDF.

Peralta and Reyes did not speak a word and listened only to what congressmen were saying about the alleged SC pork barrel.

Marikina Rep. Miro Quimbo said it was unfortunate that the high court has decided to stay away from the JDF inquiry by the Tupas committee.

He said the House is well within its right to review the law creating the fund, seek the transfer of collections to the national treasury and propose that Congress appropriate the money.

He said the Constitution provides that no public fund can be spent without an appropriation approved by Congress.

“You should not take the inquiry personally. There is nothing personal about this. We are not getting back at you because of DAP and PDAF. We want to exercise the power of the purse, which you say in those two cases that we should exercise and should not abandon to the executive branch,” he told Peralta and Reyes.

More funds still possible

Despite its snub of the House hearing, the SC may still be granted its wish for additional funds provided it lays bare all its discretionary funds including the JDF, Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab, appropriations committee chairman, said yesterday.

“We will study the judiciary’s proposal. That’s why we asked them to submit data and documents (on the JDF and other funds) before we start plenary debates on the proposed 2015 budget on Sept. 15,” Ungab said.

He said it’s not easy for the committee to increase the budget of the judiciary or any agency because giving additional funds to a particular office would mean taking the same amount of money from another.

He added that by seeking information on the judiciary’s JDF and other funds, his committee could assess how much of the requested additional funding could be sourced from those funds.

SC’s Villanueva briefed the Ungab committee on the judiciary’s funding requirements and the amounts recommended by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

He made the presentation in the presence of Reyes and Peralta and of justices of the Sandiganbayan, Court of Appeals and Court of Tax Appeals.

Villanueva said the SC is requesting P32.7 billion for the judiciary for 2015, but the DBM is willing to grant only P20.3 billion.

He said P7.3 billion was taken away from provisions for salaries, P1.5 billion from maintenance and other operating expenses and P3.4 billion from capital outlay.

He said part of the funds reduced from the SC proposal was intended for new courts Congress has created.

Responding to questions, Villanueva said he did not know how much savings the judiciary has generated since 2010 or how much is left of the JDF. He said he would just submit the needed data.

Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas said the SC has created discretionary funds other than the JDF.

“One of these is the mediation fees fund,” he said.

He also criticized the SC for allegedly resorting to judicial legislation, like when it refused to recognize a law exempting cooperatives from paying legal fees, on concerns that this would reduce money going to the JDF and the Special Allowance for Judges Fund (SAJF) and undermine the judiciary’s fiscal autonomy.

“Here was a law passed by Congress, and the Supreme Court refuses to obey it, all in the name of fiscal autonomy,” he said.

Fariñas said that in another case, the court ruled “there were certain gaps in the law enacted by Congress, and that it had the authority to fill those gaps.”

“That is clearly a resort to judicial legislation,” he stressed.

Nonetheless, Fariñas said he is willing to support the SC request for additional funding, “but you have to tell us how much you have in the JDF, SAJF, mediation fees fund and other discretionary funds.”

Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said he too is willing to support such request.

He said some of the newly created courts that would not be funded are located in his city.

“This is self-flagellation. We create additional courts to speed up the dispensation of justice, and yet we are not providing the necessary funds for them,” he said.