Guevarra defends Duterte: President concerned with public impression on ‘preliminary’ COA findings

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 20 2021 06:33 PM

Former state auditor: COA findings are not premature

MANILA — Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Friday defended President Rodrigo Duterte’s position on Commission on Audit reports which the chief executive earlier told his Cabinet to ignore.

But the 1987 Constitution actually requires COA to submit to the President “an annual report covering the financial condition and operation of the Government” and all its units and “recommend measures” to improve the government’s effectiveness and efficiency.

It is COA, under Art. IX(D) of the Constitution that has the “power, authority and duty to examine, audit, and settle all accounts” relating to government’s revenues and expenses or the use of funds or property owned by the government and has the “exclusive authority” to define the scope of its audit and examination, among other powers.

It also enjoys fiscal autonomy.

“The President as a lawyer fully understands the mandate of the COA as a constitutional body,” Guevarra said in a message, responding to a query from the media.

“I think his chief concern is on the way the COA’s preliminary findings are presented to the public and the impression that it leaves in the mind of the people prior to full compliance by the agency concerned,” he added.

Duterte wants COA to stop “flagging” and publishing accounting deficiencies because they supposedly create a “taint of corruption by perception.”

Guevarra said government agencies generally exert effort to meet auditing rules and regulations, but are “hampered by the tedious process of collating and submitting documents in support of each and every official transaction.”

“Considering that government resources are drawn principally from taxpayers’ money, and the necessity for the efficient use of these resources during this period of public emergency, it is certainly not surprising that many people express indignation over any perceived misuse of public funds,” he said. 

“In fairness to government agencies concerned, however, they should be given ample opportunity to address and rectify deficiencies noted by the COA before judgment is passed upon their accountability under existing laws,” he added.

Guevarra said COA has recognized the constraints and is supposedly willing to “review and simplify its requirements, without sacrificing safeguards to promote efficiency, transparency, and accountability in government service.”

He, however, stressed that it is not COA that determines possible legal violations.

“My understanding is that the COA regularly reports its observations on a government agency’s compliance with standard auditing rules and regulations and with other regulatory processes such as in the procurement of goods and services. The COA also makes observations on the utilization of government funds and resources at the disposal of the subject government agency,” he said.

“But the matter of determining whether any deficiencies noted in the course of audit constitute a possible violation of law devolves upon other organs of the government,” he pointed out

Former COA commissioner Heidi Mendoza earlier agreed that COA’s findings are not indications of corruption at this point.

But they could be used by the Office of the Ombudsman as a guide in conducting its own fact-finding, the preliminary step before launching an investigation. 

“Nothing should preempt the Office of the Ombudsman to conduct their own, ang tinatawag po natin doon ay fact-finding,” she earlier told ANC’s Rundown.

NOT PRELIMINARY, NOT PREMATURE

Guevarra’s position that the COA annual audit reports are “preliminary” echoed the position of presidential spokesperson Harry Roque who called premature the release of the COA reports — a claim Mendoza disputed.

“Hindi ho pwedeng sabihing premature. Mali ho yung sinabi na audit observations pa lang at wala pang exit conference,” she said, citing the lengthy process of coordination between the COA and the concerned government agency.

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Mendoza said that the annual audit reports were actually prepared by the resident audit team and went through several exchanges: from audit queries, to audit observation memorandum and audit findings, where the concerned agency is given a chance to explain every step of the way, including during an exit conference prior to the issuance of the audit report.

COA chair Michael Aguinaldo confirmed there was an exit conference on its findings on the DOH. 

"Yung audit report is a requirement by law. That has to come out. Before this audit is issued, mayroon pa yang exit conference. It’s not correct at all na sabihing walang due process," he told a House panel following Health Secretary Francisco Duque III”s emotional outburst over criticisms against the DOH.

"It’s not only the DOH central office are being audited. We do have an obligation to report. We have to mention what happened sa pondo ng gobyerno," he added.

COA flagged deficiencies in the health department’s management of P67 billion in COVID-19 funds, which some groups said reflected Duque’s brand of leadership management of the DOH in the midst of a pandemic.

“You see funds allocated to DOH and they’re unused, and you see on the ground, you hear stories about people dying in hospital beds, dying outside hospitals, in parking lots, unable to find hospitals where their relatives and family members can be confined, where you see shortages in oxygen and other medical equipment," Institute for Leadership, Empowerment and Democracy Executive Director Zy-Za Suzara told ANC.

"It makes you wonder if DOH had any sense of urgency in terms of using those funds, because those funds were provided precisely in order to respond better to the pandemic,” Suzara added.

“So that really means an inability to on the part of DOH to buttress the pandemic response as the COA audit report rightly pointed out.”

COA later clarified it did not say money was lost on corruption.

The DOH said it is transparent and the P67-billion COVID-19 funds are properly accounted for.

It said it will respond to the COA audit report soon.