Ombudsman wants COA memos out of public eye | Inquirer News

Ombudsman wants COA memos out of public eye

/ 05:55 AM September 12, 2023

No law vs red-tagging

Ombudsman Samuel Martires | INQUIRER PHOTO / NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

Ombudsman Samuel Martires urged Congress on Monday to drop the provisions in the annual national budget regarding the mandatory publication of Commission on Audit (COA) reports on government agencies to prevent the public from prejudging those involved.

“I want to suggest that the general provision in the General Appropriations Act on the publication of audit observation memorandum be removed. This is causing confusion. When a person reads that there is an audit observation memorandum that says there is a little issue in a P10-million project, this person thinks that the government official involved earned kickbacks. Then it turns out that there were receipts that were not submitted. I leave this to Congress to remove this,” Martires told members of the House appropriations panel.


He was being asked by lawmakers about the filing of cases against government officials when he made the unsolicited suggestion during the presentation of the Office of the Ombudsman’s proposed P4.98-billion budget for 2024.


Under general provisions in the government’s annual national budgets, government agencies must publish on their website their yearly reports, audited financial statements, COA findings and statements, and then inform the budget department and Congress once the reports are posted. They also have 60 days to comment on the COA’s annual audit reports.

“When a case is filed before the Ombudsman and we dismiss it, they would say the Ombudsman was bribed… The problem is that it creates an innuendo that the Ombudsman earned from it,” Martires said.

He added that when the Ombudsman files the case before the court and the court dismisses it for lack of evidence, there is also a misconception that money changed hands.

“The audit is completed and there was no problem raised, but the judge is blamed for supposedly receiving bribes. That is the problem,” Martires said.

The same point was raised by then President Rodrigo Duterte in August 2021 who said that the COA should stop flagging government transactions and publishing its reports as these led to “corruption by perception.” This was after state auditors cited deficiencies in the Department of Health’s usage of P67.3 billion worth of pandemic response funds.

Under the 1987 Constitution, the COA has the duty and authority to examine, audit and settle all accounts pertaining to the use of public funds and property by government agencies and government-owned and -controlled corporations.


Transparency, accountability

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman supported Martires’ proposal, saying the publication of COA reports would “impress in the public mind the culpability of an agency or official when the memorandum is still subject to reconciliation and rectification.”

House Deputy Minority Leader Rep. France Castro, on the other hand, disagreed. “I think the practice of publishing it (COA reports) should continue, because it is just one of the very few ways that the public can check if their hard-earned money is used properly and above board,” she told the Inquirer after the hearing.

Castro compared the audit reports to the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth or SALNs of government employees which were meant to show any increase or decrease in their wealth while in office.

“The publication of the audit observation memorandum and the SALN are mechanisms for transparency and accountability for public officials. Doing away with it is like [giving] carte blanche to unscrupulous government officials in using the people’s money,” she said.

In September 2021, during a hearing for his office’s 2022 budget, Martires pushed for tough penalties, including five years in jail, for anyone who commented on the SALNs of government employees, saying the documents were being used to destroy their reputations.

The year before, he restricted public access to SALNs by setting conditions for anyone seeking a copy, including securing a notarized authorization from the document’s owner. He later clarified that he was not blocking transparency in government, which he stressed did not mean exposing “one’s entire guts.”

The filing of SALNs is required under Republic Act No. 6713 with the Ombudsman considered the custodian of the documents, particularly those of the President, Vice President, senior officials, and star-rank military and police officers.

During Monday’s budget hearing, Martires was also asked about his office’s P51-million confidential fund in 2022 and P31 million this year. He told lawmakers, particularly Castro, that he does not submit receipts for confidential expenses, saying, “If you require a government agency to submit receipts for its confidential funds, then that’s no longer a confidential fund.”

He added: “I don’t think a receipt is important; what is needed is that we issue a certification to the effect that we spent the confidential funds for purposes of investigation of cases.”

Castro, however, pointed to a 2015 joint memorandum circular that governed the use of confidential and intelligence funds.


Martires defends Ombudsman confidential fund: Receipts are not required

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No law vs red-tagging — Ombudsman Martires

TAGS: COA, Ombudsman, Samuel Martires

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