Why Duterte can't order COA to stop flagging questionable public spending

Jauhn Etienne Villaruel, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 17 2021 05:42 PM | Updated as of Aug 17 2021 06:45 PM

Commission on Audit
Commission on Audit, Quezon City. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News/File

MANILA — In a taped public address aired past midnight Tuesday, President Rodrigo Duterte, a lawyer, issued an order to the Commission on Audit (COA) to "stop flagging" and "stop reporting" on government agencies—its most vital functions that emanates from the Philippine Constitution itself. 

"Stop that flagging, Goddamn it. You make a report, do not flag. Do not publish it," an irked Duterte said.

The President was lashing out at COA for its damning report that exposed "deficiencies" on how some government agencies spent pandemic funds last year, as people suffered from the impact of the global health crisis. 

While Duterte initially appealed for an "elbow room" as the government navigates an unprecedented emergency that required novel procurement methods, he later on ordered agencies to snub COA and its reports. 

"'Wag mong sundin 'yang COA. COA-COA, wala namang mangyari diyan. 'Yan ang ayaw ko eh, 'yang flagging flagging," he said.

But Duterte's order against COA is just rhetoric because no less than the 1987 Constitution made sure that its "excessive" flagging cannot simply be ignored. 

THE POWERS OF COA

The COA is a "Constitutional body," among the few in the country, granting it rare fiscal autonomy precisely because its functions cannot be politicized or influenced by other branches of government. 

The Constitution made it clear that no entities within the government can escape the scrutiny of COA.

"No law shall be passed exempting any entity of the Government or its subsidiaries in any guise whatever, or any investment of public funds, from the jurisdiction of the Commission on Audit."

But what exactly does COA do that spooks government agencies?

THE ANNUAL AUDIT REPORTS

COA is the supreme auditing arm of the Philippine government, with the 1987 Constitution reiterating its role as the "sole official external auditor" of government agencies as well as government-owned- and-controlled corporations (GOCCs). 

"The Commission shall have exclusive authority... to define the scope of its audit and examination, establish the techniques and methods required therefore, and promulgate accounting and auditing rules and regulations, including those for the prevention and disallowance of irregular, unnecessary, excessive, extravagant, or unconscionable expenditures or uses of government funds and properties," the Constitution said. 

While COA has a buffet of audit reports, what usually grabs headlines are its Annual Audit Reports (AAR)— meticulous analyses of how funds allocated to government agencies are spent, giving the public an overview of how their money is being utilized, or sometimes, corrupted. 

The annual audit reports ensure that agencies adhere to the highest standards of financial integrity to safeguard public funds. 

LANDMARK AUDITS

In 2016, international transparency watchdog International Budget Partnership (IBP) published a study citing the COA as the "key" in unearthing the scandalous misuse of Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF), an anomaly better known as the "pork barrel" scam. 

Under the scam, lawmakers allegedly funneled part of their discretionary funds to bogus non-government organizations set up by businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles, who then gave them kickbacks in exchange.

The groundbreaking audit report of COA, then led by Grace Pulido-Tan, resulted in the conviction of Napoles, the seizure of her daughter's California assets, the detention of several lawmakers, and declaration of PDAF as unconstitutional by no less than the Supreme Court.

'IGNORE DUTERTE'

In response to Duterte's tirade, several lawmakers and groups came to COA's defense, highlighting its role to prevent and expose corruption. 

"It is astounding how Duterte even has the audacity to tell the COA to stop flagging agencies and publishing reports... Instead of threatening the COA, why not order the involved agencies to shape up and live to their mandates?" said Elmer Labog, chairperson of Kilusang Mayo Uno, a labor group that witnessed how the government's pandemic response unfolded on the ground. 

Akbayan and Bayan Muna Party-list, meanwhile, asked COA to give Duterte a taste of his own medicine. 

"To the courageous people from COA, ignore Duterte. The people are behind you," Akbayan spokesperson RJ Naguit said. 

"COA should continue its work and just ignore Duterte... Duterte has no jurisdiction over them," Bayan Muna chairperson Neri Colmenares said.

Traditionally tight-lipped, COA on Tuesday issued a statement that simply reiterated the purpose of its audit reports: transparency.

"COA publishes the Annual and other Audit Reports only in our website for transparency purposes," its public information office said.

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