Heidi Mendoza bares reforms before US audience

By Rodney Jaleco, ABS-CBN North America News Bureau

Posted at Apr 29 2011 04:33 PM | Updated as of Apr 30 2011 12:33 AM

'Stricter audit of pork barrel, public funds among COA reforms'

WASHINGTON DC - The government will tighten the auditing of public funds, including the pork barrel of legislators to ensure they are being spent properly, newly-appointed Commission on Audit (COA) Commissioner Heidi Mendoza told World Bank officials on Thursday.
“We have started some public finance reforms. This is coupled with a partnership between the Department of Budget Management and civil society in order the open up the budget process because corruption really begins at the allocation of resources,” she said.
Mendoza was the special guest in a 2-hour talk on “Effective Auditing as the Bane of Grand Corruption” at the World Bank. The event was moderated by Sheila Coronel, director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.
“The congressional insertion funds – the pork barrel has never been audited rightfully,” Mendoza said. She begged off from providing additional details, but indicated this was part of reforms the COA wanted to implement.
Mendoza led the team that ferreted out the diversion of Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) funds meant for United Nations peacekeepers and soldiers joining the “Balikatan” war games with the United States.

Her Senate testimony helped shed light on funding anomalies in the military that she insisted today remains one of the most corrupt government organizations.
The World Bank was eager to hear Mendoza because corruption remains one of its key concerns all over the world. The WB pursues a 5-point anti-corruption strategy centered on increasing political accountability, strengthening civil society participation, creating a competitive private sector, institutional restraints on power and improving public sector management.
“One of the challenges in fighting corruption is to answer the question why are there people like Heidi,” said Rick Messick, senior operations officer of the World Bank’s Department of Institutional Integrity.
“It’s easy to see why (there’s corruption) in countries where there’s a lot of corruption and a government job is the difference between a middle class lifestyle and near starvation. I can understand the pressures. But what I don’t think we understand very well is why do people like Heidi who face circumstances like that continue to do the right thing. When we know what not makes people corrupt, what makes civil servants honest then I think we have a shot,” Messick explained.
“The fact there was someone who actually found it, that they were able to publish the results bringing them to the attention of the public and senior officials and of course the really big step was something was done about it. That’s what makes the difference in the Philippines,” he declared.

'Whistle-blowing' counter to Filipino culture

Mendoza conceded: “Among Filipinos, it runs against our culture to blow the whistle on our neighbor or our relative that’s why we’re looking at the possibility of doing a community whistle-blowing."
She cited the example parents associations who can blow the whistle on corrupt school or education officials.
“The kind of support we really need is community support,” Mendoza said. Her supporters raised some money for an “integrity fund” to provide for her family’s financial needs but which Mendoza never used. She now wants to use the fund for future whistle-blowers.
She also wants to establish a legal defense fund for state auditors and cited her own experience when she was forced to take out a bank loan to pay for a lawyer when one official she audited sued her.

She said hailing COA auditors to court was a favorite tactic of officials with skeletons to hide, and yet, Mendoza complained, there is no budget for the auditors’ legal defense.
The COA will push for a bill, about to be filed in the Senate, that will strengthen the existing Anti-Money Laundering Law.
There were times when Mendoza’s tale brought her audience close to tears, as she related her early encounters with powerful government officials – once forcing her to flee a hotel with only a bath towel because a henchman had caught up with her when she was in the shower – to the toll her work took on her family.
But it was all worth it, she insisted. “I’ve been receiving a lot of letters from soldiers and even the wives of the foot soldiers are very happy. In fact they wanted to go to the Senate and thank (former AFP budget officer Col. George) Rabusa and me, and they also wanted to get back at some of the generals because they said while they were shopping in the US, we were borrowing money to be able to cook some rice,” Mendoza revealed.
As school children, she disclosed, her father would put some money in an old can and leave it by the door. Each of the kids would take what they needed as they walked off to school. Mendoza said she never took more than what she needed because she realized doing so would mean one of her siblings won’t have lunch that day. That is a lesson, Mendoza says, she never forgot.