MASBATE CITY—Last December, about 900 employees of the provincial government of Masbate had reason to have an abundant holiday when each of them received P41,000 as a Christmas bonus.
Now, the employees are anxious they may have to return the bonus because top Masbate officials have found that their benevolence has landed them in hot water.
The officials were accused of dishonesty and graft and corruption for realigning P42.17 million in personnel services savings into “productivity enhancement incentives” or bonuses.
Unlike in the Senate, which enjoys a constitutionally guaranteed fiscal autonomy that allows Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile to realign savings of the chamber, like giving P1.6 million in “bonus” to each of the 18 senators, there is no such luck for local government units.
Senators can even liquidate through a mere certification funds drawn from excess maintenance and other operating expenses. With the certification, the Commission on Audit (COA) is barred from examining how the funds were used.
Local chief executives—governors or mayors—cannot use savings unless authorized by the provincial board through a realignment ordinance that will have to be approved by the majority of its members.
‘Absence’ of quorum
In Masbate’s case, however, the realignment ordinance was being questioned, as it was approved allegedly in the absence of a quorum.
The accused officials were Gov. Rizalina Seachon-Lanete, Vice Gov. Vicente Homer Revil and Provincial Board Members Alfredo Alim, Juan P. Sanchez Sr., Albert Vincent Chu, Hamilcar Arregadas II, Ricar Vasquez and Liga ng Barangay representative to the board Manuel Hermosa.
Complaint in Ombudsman
Sandra Cam, president of the Whistleblowers’ Association of the Philippines, filed complaints in the Office of the Ombudsman and the Office of the President on Jan. 14 against Revil and the six provincial board members.
Cam said the vice governor and the board members held a session on Dec. 10 despite the absence of a quorum and passed a resolution and subsequent ordinance approving the realignment of funds.
She said Lanete was also liable for implementing a faulty ordinance.
“Such illegal disbursement certainly has caused undue injury to the provincial government,” said Cam, a native of Batuan town in Ticao Island in Masbate, who furnished the Inquirer a copy of the complaint.
Cam said there was no quorum as only seven, including the vice governor, were present during the Dec. 10 session.
Masbate, being a first-class province, has a 14-member legislative body: the vice governor, as presiding officer, and 13 provincial board members—10 elected and three ex-officio members represented by the presidents of the provincial Liga ng mga Barangays, Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) and the municipal councilors’ federation.
“And yet these seven members in attendance were deemed as constituting a quorum… The truth, however, is that the respondent [board] members, being only seven in number, did not legally constitute a quorum,” Cam said.
She said the declaration of a quorum during the session was not only gross dishonesty but also grave misconduct, grave abuse of authority and an act prejudicial to the best interest of the service.
“This is so because the seven members present, out of 14 members of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan, can never be considered a quorum because a quorum is constituted by the majority of the entire membership of the [provincial board] who had been elected and qualified,” Cam said.
Local Government Code
The head of the whistleblowers’ group said that under the Local Government Code of 1991, eight, not seven, members for the provincial board constituted a quorum.
She cited a resolution by the provincial board of Compostela Valley in 2004 that authorized the governor to enter into a construction contract with a certain company.
Cam said only seven members of the provincial board passed the resolution and it was struck down by the Supreme Court, which declared the measure null and void because the board had no authority to pass it in the absence of a quorum.
Revil, in an interview with the Inquirer, insisted there was a quorum during the Dec. 10 session of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan.
Angelo Reyes opinion
He said the basis for declaring a quorum was an opinion made by the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) for Eulalia Talaran, provincial accountant of Catanduanes, and duly signed by then Interior Secretary Angelo Reyes on Feb. 10, 2005.
The opinion of the DILG referred to a budget ordinance passed and approved by only four members of the provincial board of Catanduanes through a special session on March 2004.
During the 2004 special session of the provincial board of Catanduanes, eight members were in Manila—without travel orders—for a luncheon meeting with then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
“Henceforth, if we were to apply Supreme Court doctrines to the instant case, it would seem that the effective absence of the eight [board] members would result in their exclusion in the determination of a quorum,” said Reyes in the DILG opinion.
Only 3 effectively absent
While it was true that six members of the provincial board were not present during the deliberation, three of them—John Henry Naga, SK chair Jeralph C. Sanchez and Enrique Legaspi—were considered “effectively absent” during the Dec. 10 session, in which the realignment of savings for the bonuses of employees were passed.
“Naga and Legaspi were in Manila while Sanchez was in Cebu without travel orders,” he said.
Thus, Revil said, only three other board members—Julius Tuason, Cherry Abapo and municipal councilors league president Alberto Abayon—who were not present during the session, should be counted as absent.
With the “effective absence” of Naga, Legaspi and Sanchez, there was still a quorum despite the absence of Tuason, Sanchez and Abayon, according to Revil.
He said the exclusion of three board members would still make 11 the total members of the provincial board at the time, despite the absence of the three other members.
“There were six board members in addition to me. So we were 7 in all,” he said.
Revil said the council passed the resolution and ordinance legally and in good faith.
“When we passed the ordinance, we were confident that we were on the side of the law inasmuch as we wanted to give bonuses to our employees in the spirit of Christmas,” he said.
Revil accused Cam of forum shopping when she filed two separate cases with the same form and substance in two separate entities.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer tried to reach Lanete for her side but she declined to comment.
But Jose Tamayo Jr., provincial administrator, told the Inquirer that the governor’s action was ministerial when she implemented the ordinance and that she had full trust in the wisdom of the provincial board.
“It’s just political harassment against the governor hurled by her opponents,” Tamayo said.
In a letter to the committee on appropriations of the provincial board, Nilda Tinegra, provincial treasurer, said only P36,600,700 were actually disbursed for the bonuses of employees.
Last month, when the unequal gifts and bonuses that Enrile had given to two groups of senators came to light, former National Treasurer Leonor Briones said the constitutional provision granting fiscal autonomy to certain bodies created inequity.
“In government itself, you don’t have uniformity and equality,” Briones was quoted as saying.
A senator is free to do what he wishes with a P1.6-million bonus from the Senate’s savings but a clerk at the Department of Agriculture will be asked to refund any bonus from his agency’s savings, she said.
It was also reported that employees in the National Housing Authority and other state corporations were grumbling that they were being asked to return bonuses they had received in the past.
They said those retiring were facing the prospect of deductions from their retirement pay if they did not reimburse the bonuses—in some cases up to P200,000 accumulated through the years.
The Constitution authorizes the President, Senate President, House Speaker, Chief Justice or heads of constitutional commissions to augment any item in the general appropriations law for their office from savings.
Since this is clearly spelled out in the Constitution, the transfer of funds has been “legitimized” by many administrations, although the general principle is that savings would revert to general funds or the treasury, Briones said.
Briones said that while government agencies enjoying fiscal autonomy, such as the Senate or the House, could give away fat bonuses to their employees, regular agencies like the departments were allowed by law to grant a maximum P10,000 bonus.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago has asked Audit Chairperson Grace Pulido-Tan for a “study, report and recommendation” that would once and for all define the constitutional words “savings” and “public purposes.”