THE inclusion of some state auditors in the newest graft case filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) over the alleged abuse of pork barrel funds bolstered suspicions that the questionable release of Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) would not have happened without the collusion of Commission on Audit (COA) officials, a Palace official said on Friday.
Deputy presidential spokesman Abigail Valte said they were well aware that even COA Chairman Grace Pulido-Tan had ordered an internal inquiry on the possible involvement of some COA auditors in the PDAF scam.
“From what I understand, given the past pronouncements of the COA chair herself, the COA is self-aware and that they have also started looking into the possibility that some auditors or resident auditors may be part of the crimes that have happened,” Valte said.
Asked if a “house cleansing” is needed at COA, Valte replied: “As far as her [Tan] public pronouncements have been concerned, it would be… At least, that is our understanding.”
Ordering COA to police its ranks “would be misplaced at this point, given that the Commission on Audit is an independent commission,” she added.
This is not the first time the state auditing agency was embroiled in the very same controversy it helped unearthed. Earlier this week, Sen. Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada accused COA of receiving some P143 million through the equally controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) of the Budget department.
“Your agency cannot be objective in its audit in the propriety and legality of the DAP when the agency itself is a recipient and beneficiary of the DAP even if there’s no irregularity in the disbursement,” Estrada told Tan during a recent budget hearing.
Tan admitted that she wrote a letter to the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) requesting funding to upgrade COA computers and the purchase of other equipment and services, and that part of the money was used to buy service vehicles for COA officials.
Of the P143.7 million DAP released to COA, Tan said that P68.3 million was used for the agency’s information technology (IT) infrastructure program, P2.79 went to the purchase of close-circuit television cameras, P4.6 million was paid to consultants and P5.115 million went to the purchase of vehicles.
Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said the budget used to procure COA equipment came from the agency’s own savings.
“If you look at the past GAAs [General Appropriation Act], there are some provisions that may require some submissions to DBM by way of ‘do you have the available funds?’… it’s not just budget, it’s also management,” Valte said.
“Secretary Abad has also clarified that when it came to the matter of the computers that were funded—not by DAP, because DAP is not a fund, it’s merely an acceleration program—it was sourced from the E-government… The digitization fund that is managed also by the Executive,” she said.
However, opposition senators on Friday said COA did not only lose its credibility in probing the DAP but also its image as a non-partisan protector of public funds.
Senate deputy minority leader Vicente Sotto 3rd said the recent disclosure about COA being a beneficiary of the controversial disbursement program could put its objectivity under suspicion. Unless there is an independent private body that would watch the state auditors, suspicion will always be there, he added.
“That has long been the question since the time of Julius Caesar—who guards the guardians? I suggest that government should secure the services of a private an independent group to audit COA,” Sotto said.
Estrada said it would be better if COA would distance itself from the DAP investigation and let an independent body probe the DAP releases.
Estrada suggested forming an independent body composed of respected personalities from the academe and mass media.
The constitutionality of the DAP has been questioned before the Supreme Court, with critics saying the DAP is an illegal disbursement by the government since it was made outside the enacted appropriations law.
Senators and congressmen themselves have admitted they never knew DAP existed and were made to believe that the additional allocations they have received after the impeachment of former Chief Justice Renato Corona were from the PDAF.
The Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) noted that unless the allocations for COA and Office of the Ombudsman were removed from Congress and the Office of the President, the agencies’ impartiality would always be questioned.
Dante Jimenez, VACC chairman, said the only way for the COA and Ombudsman to regain their impartiality is to have their respective budget out of the reach of the Legislative and the Executive departments.
Jimenez said lawmakers can always use their authority to get back at COA and the Office of the Ombudsman.
“COA should be given a fixed budget which is not under the control of Congress, in that way lawmakers cannot use their powers over the agency,” he said.
Jimenez noted that to ensure that Malacanang is not be able to use its resources to control COA, the Supreme Court should declare the DAP unconstitutional.
“As long as Malacanang has DAP and Congress has a say on the budget of COA, its credibility as a nonpolitical agency will remain questionable,” Jimenez said.