'Arroyo foreign travels cost P1.6-B more'

By Purple Romero, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak

Posted at Aug 14 2009 11:00 PM | Updated as of Aug 15 2009 07:33 AM

MANILA - President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo spent P1.6 billion more than what she should have in her foreign trips from 2003 to 2008, according to an opposition leader.

Bukidnon Rep. Teofisto Guingona III said on Friday that the Office of the President spent P2.7 billion in the past 5 years, when it should have spent only P1.1 billion based on the budget allocated for her travel expenses.

He cited that in 2008, the Office of the President spent P700 million in her trips even if the budget allocated was P250 million.

Guingona said President Arroyo is able to go around the law by using her contingent fund for her travel expenses.

He said Malacañang was able to insert a provision in the General Appropriations Act (GAA), which says that aside from emergencies, the Office of the President may charge her foreign trips to her contingent fund.

Guingona said Arroyo used up her P800 million contingent fund last year.

No overspending

But Gary Olivar, Arroyo’s presidential spokesman on economic affairs, disputed Guingona's claims.

He explained that based on an advisory of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) in 2008, the president only spent P233 million for foreign trips, around P11 million less than the actual travel budget of P244.6 million.

"What we have is a difference of numbers between what is advised by the DBM and what the COA [Commission on Audit] report is alleged to have stated," he said.
He also said that the Palace did not use contingent funds to augment Arroyo’s travel expenses, claiming that no releases were made by the DBM in 2008 from the contingent fund for these expenditures.

Olivar said the law allows the Office of the President to exceed its budget for foreign travel. He cited Section 62 of the 2008 GAA, which allows agencies to utilize their savings under the Maintenance and Operating Expenses even without prior approval by the DBM.

He said the budget allows for flexibility.

Olivar also said that the administration’s critics should take a look at the investments and trade opportunities, which have brought in more money than what Mrs. Arroyo and her delegation have spent for their travels abroad.

Congress useless

Accounting for the expenses made in the president's foreign trips should be the turf of the Commission on Audit (COA), insisted Bayan Muna Rep. Teodoro Casiño on Friday.

His 2007 resolution asking the lower House to investigate the president's travel expenses merely gathered dust.

Now he wants COA chairman Reynaldo Villar to create a special audit team that would look at how government funds were used in Arroyo's foreign trips.

Casiño, along with the late Anakpawis Rep. Crispin Beltran and Gabriela party list Rep. Liza Maza, filed a resolution before the House committee on ethics in 2007 to probe Arroyo's 4-day trip to Europe.

The president was accompanied in her December trip to Spain and United Kingdom by 3 senators, 34 congressmen, Cabinet members and 50 businessmen.

More of the same

Two of the congressmen who were with her then were also part of her US entourage in Washington D.C. and New York: Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez and Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez.

Suarez claimed on Friday that he paid for the $15,000-meal at Bobby Van's in Washington D.C..

Romualdez, whom the Palace said picked the $20,000 dinner tab at Le Cirque in New York, has chosen to keep mum.

But back then, Romualdez spoke up and said he paid for his plane fare for the European trip. Other congressmen, including then House leaders Amelita Villarosa and Suarez, also claimed that they shouldered their travel expenses, which reportedly amounted to $5,000 (P250,000) each.

The trip was criticized as a “reward” for the junking of the third impeachment complaint against Arroyo.

In January 2008, Suarez and Romualdez were also part of Arroyo’s 86-member delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

In June this year, they were also in the president’s entourage in her 10-day official visit to Japan. Fourteen other congressmen joined the trip.

Romualdez and Suarez both belong to Arroyo’s party, Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino (Kampi).

In the ruling Lakas-Kampi-CMD party, Romualdez is the senior vice president for finance.

Ombudsman probe

Malacañang has been under fire for the president's foreign trips after the New York Post published in its Page Six section that she and her entourage of 65 people spent $20,000 dollars (around P1 million) for their dinner at Le Cirque, a French restaurant in New York.

The Washington Post later reported that the group also spent $15,000 (around P700,000) at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse in Washington, D.C.

Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello had earlier asked the Office of the Ombudsman to also investigate the $20,000 dinner of Arroyo and her entourage.

Assistant Ombudsman Mark Jalandoni told abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak that they will look into the matter and determine if there is a need to include the dinners in their investigation.

Makati Mayor and United Opposition (UN) president Jejomar Binay, meanwhile, urged Malacañang to come clean on the real amount of their expenses for the US trip following reports that the Philippine consulate in New York was made to shoulder the costs.

He added that this only strengthens the suspicions that public funds have, indeed, been used for the lavish dinners of Arroyo and her entourage.