Gov’t reforms take roots at ‘cheating capital’ of PHBy Maila Ager
(Editor’s Note: Two weeks before President Benigno Aquino III is set to deliver his third state of the nation address in Congress, INQUIRER.net will be running a special report on how his administration performed in the past year and what reforms, if any, have been or would be enforced over the next four years to ensure that his vision of an honest government and of a people freed from poverty may be realized.)
MANILA, Philippines – In his state of the nation address (SONA) in July 2011, President Benigno Aquino III lengthily talked about his desire to reform the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
“Let us turn our attention to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The politics there have been dominated by horse-trading and transactional politics,” Aquino said.
Whoever was in power during national elections, Aquino said, was free to manipulate the electoral machinery in the region to ensure that non-allies would not get votes.
“That Mayor or Governor then demands payment for his services come the ARMM election, and it is the administration’s turn to manipulate the electoral machinery to secure the win of their candidate,” he said.
A report of the Commission on Audit also showed that 80 percent of the funds disbursed in the ARMM were for cash advances that could not be justified.
“If those funds had not gone to waste, a child could have gone to school. Instead, we built ghost bridges to reach ghost schools where only ghost teachers went to work,” Aquino said.
And so the solution, the President said, was the synchronization of the ARMM and national elections in 2013, a move approved by Congress even a month before he delivered his SONA in July 2011.
“We want ARMM to experience the benefits of good governance,” Aquino said.
In December 2011 or six months after his congressional speech, the President named former Anak Mindanao Representative Mujiv Hataman as acting governor of ARMM until next year. Hataman and Aquino worked together at the House of Representatives.
For decades since its creation, the ARMM – composed of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan – has been the most vulnerable to election fraud, earning the label “cheating capital of the Philippines.”
Last year, Aquino, through Republic Act 10153, called on the postponement of the ARMM elections originally scheduled on August 8, 2011 to May 11, 2013, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional.
Besides appointing officers-in-charge at the ARMM, the aim was to cleanse their lists of flying voters.
With the nullification of the old books of voters that resulted in the holding of general registration in the region from July 9, 2012 to July 18, 2012, Hataman has high hopes that ARMM would soon be free from its dark image.
To ensure the success of this general registration, the acting governor created Task Force “Rehistro” composed of heads or representatives of the Autonomous Regional Government and Civil Society organizations.
This, he said, was meant to ensure that only the legitimate residents of the cities and municipalities of ARMM could register for the 2013 polls, and would prevent those who would attempt to include their names in the voters’ list even if they were residents in other areas.
From 1.7 million, Hataman said the number of voters may go down to around 1.3 million only after the general registration.
But in a separate interview with Lanao del Sur Assemblywoman Samira Gutoc-Tomawis over Radyo Inquirer 990AM, she said the practice of politicians shouldering transportation expenses to potential voters working in Metro Manila and other far-flung cities continued in ARMM.
“We call it election tourism when politicians pay for people’s (bus-ship-plane) tickets plus allowance. That’s why it’s so good to vote now. So even before they go here at the ARMM to vote, even if they don’t know the names of candidates, their votes have been influenced already,” said Gutoc-Tomawis, a former journalist-writer who is on her first term as assemblywoman in Lanao del Sur.
Though this practice happens only during elections, she said the cheating process started during the voters’ registration period.
She said this was happening even before the start of the 10-day voting registration at the ARMM, which started Tuesday.
She said “hakot” or the hauling or ferrying of voters from other districts or towns to register in a separate precinct system still takes place.
She said there were jeepneys and buses from the cities of Davao and Iligan carrying people whose faces aren’t familiar to the locals. She told Radyo Inquirer 990AM that there were 300 people from Maguindanao who tried to enter the Marawi City hall. Marawi City is the capital of Lanao del Sur.
But then again, she said she was thankful for the presence of soldiers and policemen, numbering to about 2,000, who stay on guard against flying voters.
“I am thankful and proud to say there are still brave soldiers managing the elections to. I hope this continues,” she added.
‘No cash advance’ policy
One of Hataman’s first orders when he assumed office was to stop cash advances by government officials in the region.
In Memorandum Order 71 issued on January 3, 2012, the acting Governor directed that cash advance, fund transfers/releases to regional line agencies, local government units, non-government organizations, peoples’ organizations and other concerned entities should be granted “only after the issuance of Credit Notice” by the concerned Auditor of the Commission on Audit (COA).
“In compliance hereof, please be informed that effective January 16, 2012, the office of the Regional Treasury is directed by the undersigned not to grant subsequent fund release/transfer to any regional line department, agency, office, bureau, local government unit, non-government organization, people’s organization and/or other concerned entity unless a copy of duty signed Credit Notice for the previous cash advances and releases is submitted to the same office,” it said.
“No cash advance. Kaya nga ngayon, wala talagang cash advances [That’s why there are really no cash advances now],” Hataman said.
And those who have a notice of disallowance in the 2009 and 2010 audit report, he said, were all put in a floating status while being investigated.
The problem is that many of those involved were cashiers, making it a bit difficult for the region to run its everyday operations, he said.
“We had a problem with cashiers because all of the cashiers were involved. For example, my cashier at the Office of the Regional Governor [ORG] is the same one for the DepEd because there is a shortage of cashiers,” Hataman said in Filipino.
Prior to the assumption into office of the new administration, the regional’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) had an outstanding unliquidated cash advance in the DA central office of more than P100 million.
But the department was able bring it down to less than P23 million when the new leadership took over.
Based on the ORG’s performance report from December 22, 2011 to June 22, 2012, ARMM managed to save P203.16 million pesos from its “ghost busting” initiative – P162.3 million from the Department of Education (DepEd) and P40.86 million from the Department of Public Works and Highways.
The “ghost employees” scheme was so rampant in the region that Hataman moved to have the region’s DepEd under special audit by the COA.
“Because we were wondering why there were savings and yet they were being spent. It’s like what the DepEd is trying to tell me is we are putting people there so that the funds can be disbursed. “Ghost employees” don’t exist,” he said.
The ORG also discovered 232 “ghost employees” who have allegedly milked the funds of the Regional Ports Management Authority over the years.
It was also able to freeze a total of P77.5 million DepEd transactions intended for school maintenance and other operating expenses, which were supposed to be released to the school divisions long before the new administration assumed office.
In line with the government’s principle of transparency, ARMM is now considering an institutional online daily transaction with the Commission on Audit.
“This means that every financial transaction in the ORG is readily entered into the system which is on-line with COA national, thus, ensuring transparency of every transaction,” the report said.
The previous practice of centralized procurement, appointment of employees and teachers is now also decentralized to the respective departments and offices.
It was also during this new administration that teachers in the region have started to receive monthly salaries through ATMs, Hataman said.
As of June 2012, 48 percent of the teachers were already paid through their respective ATM accounts.
“Dati ang sahod delayed. Hindi na delay ngayon [The salaries were delayed before. Not anymore],” Hataman said.
ARMM also scrapped the P10,000 “extra-ordinary allowance” for regional officials on travel and reduced the number of contractual employees to just about 200 from almost 400 in 2011, as well as the number of hours allowed for overtime.
Some 55 “ghost employee” entries have been purged from the payroll, with 30 of them in the payroll since December 2007.
“For those included in 2007 and 2009, the government lost more than P30.0 million, representing the minimum pay of P17,099.00 and 13th month pay only, exclusive of other benefits,” the report said.
In just six months in office, ARMM posted a total of P396.247 million in revenues –P198.073 million transferred/ released to ARMM line agencies and P198.174 million to local government units.
To rectify the “ghost” data, the DepEd has implemented the Learner’s Reference Number (LRN) to account for every learner enrolled in school. The school audit targets about 20 percent of all public schools.
The department also issued a moratorium on the creation of new schools, districts and divisions and a Regional Task Force to study and rectify current limits and surplus.
The first-ever Registry of LET Passers at the Regional Office was also established and appointments of eligible applicants to entry positions were now being prioritized.
“After painstaking cross validation of the payroll against the plantilla, it was found out that more than 200 personnel have appointment documents but are not listed in the plantilla,” the report noted.
“This list has been forwarded to the CSC-ARMM for validation and their legal opinion is sought on this matter.”
Initial reports showed that of the 15,279 elementary teachers, 5,633 teachers were not found in the online registry of the Philippine Regulatory Commission (PRC).
Peace and Security
As a strong manifestation of promoting peace in the region, no less than Hataman initiated a peace pact with the Akbar clan.
Hataman was tagged and charged with the 2007 bombing of the House of Representatives that killed several people, including then Basilan Representative Wahab Akbar.
On June 5, 2012, a peace covenant was forged in Basilan and witnessed by Local Government Secretary Jessie Robredo, OPAPP Secretary Teresita Deles, provincial governors of Tawi-Tawi, Sulu and Lanao del Sur, members of the Hataman and Akbar clans and more than 5,000 Basileños.
There are now 1,477 police personnel deployed in villages region-wide to maintain peace and order in the region, according to the ORG report.
“This is more challenging. But compare this with the previous administration, the private armed groups are no longer like they used to be – involved in blatant massacres,” Hataman said, referring to the killing of over 50 people in Maguindanao by alleged members of the influential Ampatuan clan, known allies of former President and now Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, in November 2009.
“For example, inside the compound of the ARMM, during the time of the Ampatuans, there were tanks. But they’re gone now. Only security forces are allowed. We don’t allow civilians,” he said.
Hataman is standing by his promise not to join next year’s gubernatorial race in the region.
“No. I will no longer run because we might be accused of politicking. It will be difficult,” he said.
“In fact, if I had planned to run, then I would be preoccupied with politics. Nothing will happen. Besides, I’m tired . . . I have decided not to run,” he said.
But Hataman realized that his being an appointee of the President, the first in the history of ARMM, has become an advantage for him.
“The reforms are easier because you have the backing of a President who is also for reforms,” he said in Filipino.
“If you let it go through elections, then you will have to get involved in politics and you will have to accede to the wishes of every politician. In the situation I am in, being a presidential appointee, there’s no need to. There are no longer favors being sought because I don’t owe anyone anything. I only owe a debt of gratitude to President Aquino,” Hataman said.
Read Part 1: Pagcor cuts coffee cost, no charges yet vs suspects
Read Part 2: Ombudsman is Aquino’s key weapon vs graft