Senate panel defers SolGen's 2021 budget over travel, confidential funds

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 05 2020 02:04 PM

Solicitor General Jose Calida. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

MANILA - A Senate panel on Monday deferred the approval of the Office of the Solicitor General's (OSG) P1.61-billion budget for 2021, after the agency failed to clarify some appropriations in its funding request.

Sen. Francis Tolentino moved for the deferment of the OSG's budget after the agency failed to explain several issues, including a higher allocation for the office's travel and confidential funds, as well as Solicitor General Jose Calida's millions-worth of allowances.

"Kasagsagan pa next year ng COVID-19. Saan naman kayo mag-fo-foreign travel?" Tolentino asked, noting that 87.75 percent of the OSG's proposed P21.49-million travel budget is allocated for foreign trips.

"Ngayon, malaki pa hinihingi niyo. Hindi ko alam saan kayo magtra-travel," he said.

The senator also questioned why the Solicitor General's confidential funds for 2021 "jumped" to P20 million from P5 million, when the agency has no mandate to utilize confidential funds.

Under the law, confidential funds may only be used for programs related to national security and peace and order, Tolentino said.

"I don't see paano magkakaroon ng national security, and peace and order budget ang inyong office," he said.

The OSG is planning to realign the proposed travel budget and other funds to improve its office in an "old" building in Makati, said Assistant Solicitor General Henry Angeles, who represented Calida in the budget hearing.

Calida skipped the budget hearing, saying his doctor advised him to rest for 5 days.

Tolentino also quizzed Angeles about why Calida has ranked as among the highest paid government officials in recent years, noting that his predecessor's salary was less than half of the earnings of the current Solicitor General.

"Bakit nangyari ito... Baka nag-increase ang budget ng SolGen (Office), tapos sa kaniya (Calida) lang napupunta?" Tolentino asked.

Angeles said the Solicitor General is authorized to receive allowances from "client agencies," but Tolentino noted that the Commission on Audit (COA) has released a circular that says allowances of government officials should not exceed half of their salaries.

"COA has been asking you not to raise that to more than 50 percent (of his salary), and apparently the SolGen has defied that," the senator said.

Tolentino, a lawyer, also underscored that the OSG has been overstepping its mandate by participating in preliminary investigations and fact-finding activities.

In May, Calida warned the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) of legal consequences should it allow ABS-CBN to operate on a temporary franchise while its application for a new broadcast franchise was still being tackled in Congress at the time. Two months earlier, the NTC committed to lawmakers it will grant ABS-CBN a provisional authority.

Calida's office was also allegedly involved in the preparation of the "faulty" affidavit of Peter Advincula, who accused Vice President Leni Robredo and other opposition figures of sedition.

"The government is spending for your expenditures for preliminary investigations, fact-finding activities which is outside your mandate," Tolentino said.

"There should be no basis likewise for the expenditure," he said.

The Senate Committee on Finance ruled that the OSG's budget would not be approved until the agency submits all requested documents that would justify its spending on items beyond its mandate.