BUSTED FOR BUSTS? House panel mulls ‘separate inquiry’ into other Ilocos Norte projects

Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 17 2017 03:41 PM

Photos of these sculptures were attached to a disbursement voucher on procurement for the development of the Paoay Museum. The busts are, in fact, at the Rizal Park in Laoag City. Lemuel Salvador, ABS-CBN News

Sculptures the capitol declared in COA liquidation documents as part of Paoay project found in Laoag City. 

MANILA— While embroiled in a controversy over the questionable use of tobacco excise tax funds, Ilocos Norte Gov. Imee Marcos may be facing more trouble at the House of Representatives. 

The House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability is considering holding a separate inquiry into five more projects of the Ilocos Norte provincial government, citing a 2013 memorandum that the Commission on Audit (COA) had sent Marcos to flag P73.9 million in cash advances in 2012. 

“During one of our meetings, it was mentioned that there’s a possibility that we will conduct a separate inquiry,” Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel, the House committee chair, told ABS-CBN News. 

In an Audit Observation Memorandum (AOM) sent on Jan. 8, 2013, COA Regional Office No. 1 cited the Marcos capitol’s disbursements for several projects, including the purchase of vehicles, bust sculptures for the Paoay Museum, materials for the improvement of the Paseo de Paoay, medicine, and fertilizers.

Pimentel said his committee received the same AOM among documents that COA submitted in relation to its ongoing investigation into Marcos’ release of P66.45 million in tobacco excise tax funds to purchase mini-cabs and mini-trucks through three disbursements in 2011 and 2012. 

Marcos last week asked the Supreme Court to stop the House inquiry and compel the legislature to release her six financial officers held since May 29 for refusing to cooperate in the investigation. 

“At the moment, we’re studying the options… The Committee can conduct an inquiry if someone delivers a speech to conduct an inquiry or, if a Representative would like to have this investigation, then he should file a resolution requesting the committee to conduct an inquiry,” Pimentel said when reached for comment Sunday. 

“The other option is we could have it investigated motu proprio. Let’s say during the [next] hearing [on the tobacco excise tax funds disbursements], this comes up, and then somebody, a member of the committee moves to have this investigated, that can be done by a majority vote of the members,” the lawmaker said.

He said 5 out of 6 transactions cited in the Jan. 8, 2013 AOM were not among three projects covered by House Resolution No. 882, which House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas, Marcos’ former ally and now political nemesis, filed to initiate the investigation. 

Only one in the AOM--the procurement of 70 mini-trucks for P32.55 million in September 2012- was part of Fariñas resolution.

“Actually, that’s how we caught it. They [the five transactions] were not part of House Resolution No. 882. But when [the documents were] submitted, we found five other transactions there purchased also by cash advances,” Pimentel said.

He said the committee has yet to determine whether the advances were made out of tobacco excise tax funds or the Ilocos Norte government’s general fund. 

Still, he said, the disbursements made through cash advances were suspicious. 

“We have not yet confirmed whether the funds used were from tobacco excise taxes. It could have come from the general fund, but [the manner of] procurement does not follow the law,” Pimentel said. 

“You know what, I was a governor for six years, even [for the procurement of] coupon bond, we had to go through bidding, even [the purchase of] staplers. We do not resort to CA (cash advance) because it is prohibited,” Pimentel said. 

The five transactions that the House panel is looking into include procurement of the following: 

  • May, 25, 2012- purchase of 5 units of buses worth P15.3 million
  • July 17, 2012- purchase of portrait bust sculpture and services for the development of Paoay Museum worth P2.986 million
  • July 18, 2012- materials and installation of precast concrete for Paseo de Paoay worth P4.83 million
  • Oct. 24, 2012- Purchase of medicines and Libspray 211 (fertilizer) distribution to different municipalities worth P5.99 million
  • Nov. 23, 2012- Purchase of Panlabanan 5EC (fertilizer) for distribution to different municipalities worth P10.475 million
  • Dec. 11, 2012- Purchase of medicines for distribution to different municipalities worth P1.75M million

COA: Cash advances expose public funds to ‘possible misappropriation.’

In its memo, the audit agency said the disbursements “are not in accordance” with guidelines set by COA Circular 92-382, which restricted the use of cash advances. It also warned that cash advances made public funds vulnerable to misuse. 

The memo, addressed to Marcos, the provincial accounting office and the provincial treasury office, was signed by supervising auditor Rizalino Franco Jr. 

“Management resorted to cash advance in the procurement of goods amounting to P73,899,723.68 instead of regular check disbursement which is not in accordance to the provisions of Section 9, 45, 46 and 47 of COA Circular No. 92-382 dated July 3, 1992 thus exposing the money to possible misappropriation,” the AOM read. 

Sections of the 1992 COA circular the AOM said the provincial capitol had violated set the following rules on fund disbursements and the use of cash advances: 

  • Section 9- Disbursement by check: All disbursements shall be made by check except otherwise provided herein. 
  • Section 45- Cash payments on disbursement vouchers: Cash payments shall be made only on duly approved payrolls/disbursement vouchers or liquidation vouchers out of regular cash advances or special cash advances. 
  • Section 46- Regular cash advances: regular cash advances are those granted to cashiers, disbursing officers, paymasters and/or property/supply officers separately for any of the following purposes: 
    • a- salaries and wages; 
    • b- commutable allowances;
    • c- honoraria and other similar payments to officials and employees; and,
    • d- petty operating expenses 
  • Section 47- Special cash advances are those granted on the explicit authority of the local chief executive only to duly designated disbursing officers or employees for other legally authorized purposes such as: 
    • a- confidential expenses; and/or
    • b- expenditures for the activities of the agency undertaken in the field when it is impractical to pay check. 

“We recommend that management should strictly observe the rules and regulations on the proper granting of cash advances,” COA told Marcos in the AOM. 

Pimentel noted that no action followed COA’s issuance of the AOM, and that the agency failed to pursue the alleged violation and hold Marcos accountable.

“Once you issue an AOM, the procedure is that Gov. Imee should answer the AOM. Now, if the COA is not satisfied [with the answer], it should issue a notice of suspension on these transactions,” Pimentel said. 

“After that, it would issue a notice of disallowance, which means the transaction is disallowed, and that you have to reimburse government for the expenses,” he said. 

Pimentel noted that COA “did not follow the proper procedure” and did not follow through on the AOM. 

Images of Laoag busts attached to liquidation for Paoay project 

Among the five projects, disbursements for the Paoay Museum were notable. 

A voucher for a P1.6 million disbursement said the fund release was “to liquidate the amount needed for the purchase of a portrait bust sculpture and services for the development of Paoay Museum as part of the Heritage Trail Tourism Development plan of the province as per supporting papers hereto attached.” 

Among the attachments were photos of several busts of figures throughout Philippine history, including the governor’s father, the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, erected at an outdoor location.

An ABS-CBN News Team found the sculptures at the Rizal Park in Laoag City, 20 minutes away from Paoay. It was unclear whether the mismatched attachments were due to a clerical error.

Sculptures the capitol declared in COA liquidation documents as part of a Paoay Museum project were found in Laoag Lemuel Salvador, ABS-CBN News
Among the busts were of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, the governor’s father. Lemuel Salvador, ABS-CBN News

An ABS-CBN News team that looked for the Paoay Museum was directed by locals to an empty art gallery. The one-level structure bore the name Arte Luna, but guards at the building said it was the same one known as the Paoay Museum. 

The gallery, which used to host art exhibits, is being converted into a multi-purpose hall, according to those manning the building. 

Security guards told an ABS-CBN News team that this structure, Arte Luna, is also the Paoay Museum. Lemuel Salvador, ABS-CBN News
Arte Luna is currently empty. Lemuel Salvador, ABS-CBN News
Another project the COA flagged in its memo was improvements for the Paseo de Paoay, a two-story commercial center across the centuries-old Saint Augustine Church, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Paseo de Paoay’s design is consistent with the town’s heritage theme.

Marcos knows about COA memo but asserts nothing wrong with disbursements

Sought for comment, Marcos said she was aware of the AOM but maintained that the amounts involved were “fully liquidated.” 

“Actually, nakita ko nga ‘yon, first time ko makita ‘yang AOM na ‘yan. I’m sorry, ang labo kong sumagot dahil dependent din ako sa mga local finance [officials] (Actually, I’ve seen that, it was my first time to see that AOM. I’m sorry if I can’t answer clearly because I am dependent on local finance officials),” Marcos told ABS-CBN News on Thursday. 

“…[I]t’s fully liquidated. At maipapakita naman na fully liquidated, kahit na CA (cash advance) siya, again, eh talagang fully liquidated ‘yon (We can show that they’re fully liquidated, even if it was through cash advance, that’s fully liquidated),” Marcos said. 

She said she could not clearly remember the transactions, adding that her six detained officials knew the details. 

Marcos admitted that she used cash advances for the projects, but asserted that there was nothing wrong with such mode of procurement. 

In her July 13 press conference, Marcos said: “Hindi ibig sabihin kapag kinash advance, ibubulsa mo na (It doesn’t mean that when you fund a project through cash advance, you pocket the money).”

As to the sculptures, Marcos’ memory was also sketchy. 

“Yeah we bought the…I don’t know if it was busts or sculptures, ‘di ko na maalala eh (I can’t remember). Basta, ang problema lagi sa Paoay, palibhasa heritage [site] siya, you have to conform to the National [Commission on] Culture and Arts and heritage [guidelines] of the UNESCO, basta susunod ka sa napakaraming guidelines (The problem in Paoay is, because there’s a heritage site, you have to to conform to NCCA and heritage guidelines of the UNESCO, you have to follow so many guidelines),” Marcos said separately in an interview.

“Tapos, madalas iisa lang ang craftsman o supplier para doon, mga specialized. Anyway, ang dapat doon, it was supposed to be an agro-tourism project ata. ‘Yun ang naaalala ko. Pero pinagpilitan na magconform pa rin sa heritage ng Paoay (And often, there’s only one craftsman or supplier for that, specialized [projects]. It was supposed to be an agro-tourism project I think. That’s what I remember. But we had to conform with the heritage in Paoay),” Marcos said, in reference to the town’s UNESCO World Heritage site, the centuries-old Saint Augustine Church.

Marcos has a pending petition at the Supreme Court seeking to stop the ongoing House inquiry. In an omnibus petition filed on Thursday, the governor also asked the court to issue a writ of amparo or protection as she may face possible detention if she continued to shun the summons to the House hearings. 

The official also pressed for the release of her six financial officers still held by the House committee despite a Court of Appeals order for them to be set free. 

In facing the media last week, Marcos was still undecided whether or not she would participate in the hearings, saying it was all about local politics dragged to Congress by Fariñas, whose political clan has a stake in Ilocos Norte elections in 2019. 

Marcos said she “would like to go” to explain her side, but added that she has been strongly dissuaded by her supporters. 

Pimentel’s panel is expected to resume hearings on the alleged tobacco excise tax misuse soon after Congress opens session on July 24. — with a report from Dianne Dy, ABS-CBN News