Senate panel tightens seal on secret funds
The Senate oversight committee on confidential and intelligence funds (CIFs) has released self-imposed rules preventing the publication of information regarding the secret allotments and imposing sanctions on senators who may disclose these to the public.
Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri, who heads the five-member committee, did not respond when asked on Thursday for clarification on whether the rules cover the disclosure of information on the misuse of the CIF.
The senators who violate the rules on disclosure face suspension or expulsion from the Senate.
Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III, who is the opposition representative in the committee, said he and the others were not precluded from disclosing and discussing their “observations and conclusions” on the reports on the use of the CIF.
“That is the purpose of the examination: to review and to come up with an opinion,” he told the Inquirer in a Viber message on Thursday.
The committee was “reactivated” to exercise “vigilant legislative oversight” over the “use, disbursement and expenditures” of CIFs of government agencies and their “intelligence activities, sources, methods and programs.”
The rules were made public following the renewed controversy over the CIF requests by Vice President Sara Duterte for her office and for the Department of Education (DepEd) where she concurrently serves as the secretary.
The four-page committee document released on Wednesday outlined the rules, which did not specify penalties against private persons who disclose information about CIFs obtained by the committee.
The rules cover accessing and handling information received by the committee on the use of CIFs by government agencies and how they would be spending the secret funds in their budget proposals.
The committee has the authority, among others, to examine all CIFs, review all submissions and reports by the various government agencies which received such funds, and examine all rules, policies and issuances of executive agencies, including the Commission on Audit, on the “entitlement, release, use and reporting” of CIFs.
The committee prohibits disclosing “specific information, details and documents” on CIFs obtained from documents submitted to the Senate. These information and documents “may not be released or discussed before the media.”
At Monday’s Senate discussions on the budget of the Office of the Vice President (OVP), Duterte confirmed that her office received P125 million in confidential funds last year, through a supposed transfer from the Office of the President (OP).
The 2022 General Appropriations Act has not allotted CIFs for the OVP, which was then under Vice President Leni Robredo.
“We requested confidential funds to the Office of the President as early as August 2022 and we’re only granted the confidential funds in December 2022,” the Vice President told the senators.
Opposition Senators Pimentel and Risa Hontiveros had questioned the transfer of P125 million in confidential funds to the OVP from the contingency funds from the OP.
Marikina Rep. Stella Luz Quimbo, senior vice chair of the appropriations panel of the House of Representatives defended the OVP’s P125-million CIF last year, saying in an interview with ANC that “everything was legal.”
“The line item, which is confidential and intelligence funds, already existed in 2022 [for OVP]. It just so happened that the amount was zero,” she explained.
ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro disputed this, telling the Inquirer that what Quimbo cited was a mere “category” under the maintenance and other operating expenses of the OVP and could not be called a “line item” as such because it was unfunded in the first place.
Castro said that a Supreme Court ruling in 2014 prohibited the “augmentation” of an item that was unfunded.
The President may veto a line item because he disagrees with that specific funding. A presidential veto is unnecessary for an unfunded item.
The 2022 budgets of at least 10 other departments, including the Department of Labor and Employment and the Department of Health, seen by the Inquirer all had the heading “confidential, intelligence and extraordinary expenses” but only the extraordinary expenses had been funded in all but one.
Quimbo told the Inquirer that the plenary deliberations on the budgets of the OP and the OVP would be an avenue to discuss the national expenditure plan.
Asked if she would also question the CIFs during the plenary session on the budget, Quimbo said: “Yes, that’s very important. We need to know how the previous funds were spent so that we will be able to program funds for the future.”
Opposition lawmakers in the House of Representatives on Thursday said they would continue questioning the CIF allocations for the OVP and the OP.
“Upholding the principles of transparency, accountability and proper allocation of public funds is crucial in ensuring good governance and protecting the welfare of the Filipino people,” Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas, Castro and Kabataan Rep. Raoul Manuel said in a joint statement.
“We will raise this again at the plenary and even outside Congress,” they said.
Another opposition representative, Edcel Lagman of Albay, said that he would also question the CIFs of both the OP and OVP once it reaches the plenary on Sept. 18.
“You can be assured that I will continue my advocacy against the secret funds in the plenary debates,” Lagman told the Inquirer in a text message.
Last week, Castro and Manuel attempted to scrutinize and go over the P500-million confidential funds of the OVP’s P2.4-billion budget proposal for next year.
The deliberation on the proposed OVP budget was abruptly terminated upon the motion from Ilocos Norte Rep. Sandro Marcos to show “parliamentary courtesy” to the Vice President. Castro was insisting on continuing the deliberations when her microphone was shut off.
The Senate oversight committee on the CIFs also includes Majority Leader Joel Villanueva, finance committee chair Sen. Sonny Angara and Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa.
According to Zubiri, Dela Rosa was included for his supposed expertise on the use of intelligence funds as former chief of the Philippine National Police.
The Senate oversight rules classify information into three categories: “top secret,” “secret” and “confidential.”
Information is considered “top secret” if its unauthorized disclosure could cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security.
Unauthorized disclosure of “secret” information also “endangers national security, cause serious injury to the interest or prestige of the nation or of any governmental activity, or would be of great advantage to a foreign nation.”
The disclosure of “confidential” information, “while not endangering national security, peace and order, and public safety, would be prejudicial to the interest or prestige of the nation, or of governmental activity, or would cause administrative embarrassment or unwarranted injury to an individual or would be advantageous to a foreign nation.”