Ombudsman urges COA to sue DBM for withholding its funds worth P173M
MANILA, Philippines — If it were up to Ombudsman Samuel Martires, the Commission on Audit (COA) should file a case against the Department of Budget Management (DBM) for withholding the release of P173 million to the state auditor.
During the budget hearing for the proposed budget of COA and the Office of the Ombudsman, several senators said withholding the amount from being released to COA violates its fiscal autonomy under the Constitution.
The Constitution guarantees the fiscal independence of COA, which approved annual appropriations should be automatically and regularly released.
It was Senator Panfilo Lacson who first questioned why a total of P173 million worth of projects and programs under COA’s maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE) and capital outlay (CO) were discontinued and were categorized as funds “for later release.”
“’Pag sinabi nating fiscal autonomy walang pakialam ang DBM. In fact, dapat automatic release ito. My question is, and I direct this to COA and even Ombudsman, kasi pwede sila maapektuhan, ‘di ba violation ng fiscal autonomy provision ng Constitution ito?” Lacson said.
In response, COA chairman Michael Aguinaldo said that while he recognizes that withholding of these funds is a violation of COA’s fiscal autonomy, he said the commission also acknowledged the need to fund the government’s response to the pandemic.
“More or less, parang ginive up na namin considering the difficulties the government was having with funding in view of the pandemic. Parang binigay na rin namin,” Aguinaldo said.
“We’re okay with that decision. Kasi we understand naman the difficulties they have with finance, but we agree it’s a violation of fiscal autonomy,” he added.
But when Martires was sought to comment on the issue, the Ombudsman said the DBM “has gravely abused its discretion.”
“I don’t want to say some bad words against the Department of Budget and Management, but I think it has gravely abused its discretion amounting to what we always say lack of jurisdiction. I think they are just lucky that we have a very good and mabait na COA Chairman,” Martires said.
“If I were in the place of COA chair Aguinaldo, I would have filed a case against the DBM Secretary or any of the personnel involved in the budget of the Commission on Audit and involved in not releasing the P173 million,” he added.
He said a case against budget officials can be filed in violation of Section 3(e) under the Republic Act 3019.
“It created an undue injury not only to the Commission on Audit but to the Filipino people who are expecting the Commission on Audit to do its just. If it will affect the work of the Commission on Audit, the DBM is liable for that and nobody would just like to dare to file a case against a DBM secretary or any of his staff,” Martires said.
“I think it’s about time, we have to teach these people a lesson. Not simply because they are close to the Gods that they should also be acting like Gods. Otherwise, they will just be like the proverbial fly who thought of himself like a carabao even though he’s just on top of the carabao,” he added.
He urged COA to consider his proposal in order to “avoid any abuse in the future.”
“What we do is we always keep on begging Congress ‘Please reinstate our budget’ when we should not be doing that actually,” he added.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, a former justice secretary, agreed with Martires.
“I’m perplexed by this. This violates the fiscal autonomy of the constitutional bodies and while Chairman Aguinaldo is magnanimous, sorry to say, your magnanimity has no place here because this involves the power not only of COA but of all the constitutional bodies,” Drilon said.
He added that if COA would opt not to insist on these funds to be released and have it augment the government’s response to the pandemic, the state auditor could just return the amount to the national treasury.
“If you really feel that you want to help the government by not insisting on this appropriation of P173 million, my suggestion you get it, as part of the principle of fiscal autonomy, and return it if you feel that you cannot have any use for it,” Drilon said.
“But you must assert that you are entitled to this. Otherwise, if we just let it go in this manner, magkakaproblema tayo,” he added.
Sought for his comment, Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado told INQUIRER.net in a text message that the release of the P173 million is subject to the approval of the President upon COA’s submission of documentary requirements pursuant to DBM’s National Budget Circular No. 578.
“It is still available and not included as part of the pooled savings under [the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act],” Avisado said.
The said law allows the realignment of funds from agencies under the executive department as a source of additional funds for the government’s response to the health crisis.
Avisado said the DBM has yet to receive from COA a special budget request (SBR) for the construction of provincial satellite auditing offices (P90 million), land improvements for two regional offices (P20 million), purchase of motor vehicles (P13 million), and traveling expenses (P50 million).
“As soon as we receive the SBR, we will immediately forward the same to [the Office of the President] for approval,” Avisado said.
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