Senators shield Diokno from House attack
Several senators have taken the cudgels for Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno after the House of Representatives urged President Duterte to fire him for inserting huge infrastructure funding in the proposed 2019 budget, allegedly without the President’s knowledge.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III lauded Diokno’s performance as the official in charge of crafting the administration’s spending plan.
“Ben Diokno has been doing a good job and has never been known to indulge in any illegal actions as far as the government budget is concerned,” Sotto said in a text message on Thursday.
Whether he should be dismissed would depend on his explanation of how the budget was prepared, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III said on Thursday.
“Secretary Diokno should at least explain in detail the process followed,” he said in a text message.
Diokno on Thursday expressed confidence that moves to oust him as budget secretary would not prosper.
“I just had a meeting with him (President Duterte). He gave me his full support,” Diokno said in a text message.
Diokno is one of the “best and the brightest” in the Cabinet, with an untarnished record to boot, according to presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo.
Pimentel said the secretary’s fate should be based on how well he would answer the allegations. “It depends on the explanation, if believable, if sensible, if logical.”
On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Rolando Andaya Jr. claimed that most of the P75-billion “executive pork insertions” had been bid out, with 30 infrastructure projects given to a lone Bulacan-based contractor even before Congress could approve the budget.
In a resolution calling for Diokno’s ouster, the House said the secretary failed to justify the award to CT Leoncio Construction and Trading of billions of pesos worth of infrastructure projects in Sorsogon province, where the mother of Diokno’s son-in-law is the vice governor and his stepfather is the mayor of Casiguran town.
Last week, Sen. Panfilo Lacson disclosed that in the P3.8-trillion budget for 2019, which the House had approved, Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo got P2.4 billion in pork for her district in Pampanga province, while Andaya was allocated P1.9 billion for his district in Camarines Sur.
Pork finances pet projects of lawmakers, and is a source of kickbacks.
Andaya served as Arroyo’s budget secretary when she was President.
Too harsh, unfair
Lacson, who had exposed lump-sum appropriations in the spending bill that he described as pork, said asking Mr. Duterte to sack Diokno would be “too harsh and unfair, considering that the accusation against him is more speculative than it is substantiated by solid evidence.”
But he said the allegations should still be investigated by either the House or the Senate. He underscored the need to stop wasting public funds by fixing the budgeting process and making sure it complies with all laws.
Sen. Loren Legarda, the finance committee chair, also supported Diokno, describing him as a man of integrity and unquestionable competence.
“Even in his previous stints in government, he has been known for introducing reforms that would enhance transparency and improve the efficiency of government service,” Legarda said.
In a statement, Panelo said Malacañang expected the lawmakers to accord Duterte the same courtesy that the President exhibited in not interfering in House affairs.
The Palace official reminded them of their constitutional task to scrutinize and fix the budget in case of any irregularity.
House oversight function
Andaya pooh-poohed Malacañang’s rejection of the House call to fire Diokno over what he said was a “large-scale scam” in the preparation of the spending bill.
The majority leader said the rules committee, which he heads, would summon officials of the Department of Public Works and Highways in the Bicol region to an inquiry into Diokno’s insertion of P75 billion in the budget bill.
Also summoned to the hearing, scheduled for Jan. 3 in Naga City, were officials of CT Leoncio.
Diokno, who appeared at the House Question Hour on Dec. 11, may not be the last of Mr. Duterte’s men to face grilling by the House.
Speaker Arroyo said on the floor on Wednesday night that the chamber would focus on flexing its oversight authority after fulfilling its commitment to pass measures on Mr. Duterte’s legislative agenda.
Starting January, she said the oversight committee, led by Minority Leader Danilo Suarez, would be “very active.” —WITH A REPORT FROM JULIE M. AURELIO
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