MANILA, Philippines – Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago on Wednesday said she has returned a P250,000 “Christmas gift” from Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile. She also urged the Commission on Audit to reveal the annual income of all public officials, including members of Congress.
In a radio interview, Santiago confirmed Enrile’s statement that she had returned the P250,000, which was described by Enrile’s staff as "JPE's personal cash gift."
"He returned my biscuits, so I returned his cash," she told Radyo Inquirer.
Enrile earlier confirmed that he gave nearly P30 million in additional budget to senators last Christmas from the savings of the Senate. Part of the savings is from the budget for the 24th Senate post, which was vacated after Benigno Aquino III won in the 2010 presidential election.
The Senate President admitted giving P250,000 to all the senators last Christmas as “pamasko.” In addition, he also gave P1.6 million each to 18 senators without giving the same to 4 senators namely Santiago, Antonio Trillanes IV, Alan Peter Cayetano and Pia Cayetano.
In explaining his action, the Senate President said he has sole discretion “not to authorize any further releases of additional maintenance and other operating expenses budget to the four senators.”
Santiago urged COA chairwoman Ma. Gracia Pulido-Tan to instruct government auditors to examine and audit so-called "savings" or "secret funds" available to the Senate President, Speaker and other heads of offices.
"The so-called savings of each public office has turned into a national scandal, the grandmama of all scandals. The Constitution allows savings to be used by the office at the end of the year. But in reality, the head of office manipulates the books and creates so-called savings, by refusing to fill up vacancies, or refusing to buy essential office supplies or services, or capital equipment. These so-called 'enforced savings' are then distributed among the highest officials, in the guise of Christmas bonuses," she said in the interview.
She said the COA auditor usually accommodates the "enforced savings" ordered by the head of office, because COA auditors are often afraid of politicians, or the COA auditors themselves share in the "enforced savings."
"I challenge the COA to reveal to the public the total income annually of every senator and every representative. This total income should include: basic salary, Christmas and other bonuses, monthly honoraria for committee work, monthly appropriation to be spent at the senator's discretion for staff salaries and for MOOE (maintenance and other operating expenses), appropriations for consultants, foreign travel funds, etc.," she said.
The senator earlier confirmed that her relationship with Enrile was “ice-cold” due to disagreements on various issues including the passage of the reproductive health bill.
Enrile has questioned Santiago’s membership in the Senate majority, saying the female senator “has publicly and repeatedly denounced and attacked me.”
Senators get P2.2M monthly
In a statement, Santiago said each senator receives P2.2 million for staff salaries and office expenses every month.
"The senator can play around with this P 2.2 million. If he does not hire staff, or does not spend for office rental and supplies, he gets to keep the P 2.2 million or any residual amount for himself," she said.
She argued that for many years starting in 1995 when she was first elected to the Senate that the public should know the total annual income of every legislator.
Before she was elected senator, Santiago served as immigration commissioner and concurrently member of the board of directors of the Philippine Retirement Authority, where she waived her Christmas bonus in favor of the rank and file, on the ground that the director's bonus had no legal basis.
Santiago said that in her first year as senator, she returned to the Senate her unspent funds. She said her action was derided by many of her fellow senators at that time “because it made them look bad.”
Annual income of gov’t officials
The senator said she had previously called for a public revelation of each senator's total income. After her call, the then Senate President ordered the Senate budget director to keep the Senate finance documents confidential, even against a senator like Santiago.
Santiago urged COA to reveal the annual total income from government offices of all public officials, led by Congress members.
"The COA should upload on the internet, not only the basic salary, but also the total annual income of every high public official. If the COA cannot give the exact figure, then it should issue an accompanying statement on optional sources of income, such as committee chairmanships or memberships,” she said.
“Outside of Congress, COA should reveal how much intelligence or confidential funds are allotted to workers in law enforcement," she added.
The lawmaker said that in many cases, senators and representatives get kickbacks consisting of some 10 percent of their pork barrel funds.
"For a senator with an annual pork barrel of P200 million, the annual kickback is usually P20 million, or a total kickback in six years of P120 million. For a representative with annual pork barrel of P70 million, the usual annual kickback is P7 million, or a total kickback every three years of P21 million," she said.