SC asked to compel return of VP Sara Duterte’s 2022 secret funds
MANILA, Philippines — A group of legal and economic experts on Tuesday filed a petition at the Supreme Court asking that it declare as unconstitutional last year’s transfer of P125 million in confidential funds from the Office of the President (OP) to the Office of the Vice President (OVP), and to order its return to the national treasury.
Among the petitioners were lawyer Christian Monsod, one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution; lawyer Barry Gutierrez, who served as spokesperson for former Vice President Leni Robredo; economist Maria Cielo Magno, who was asked to resign in September as finance undersecretary due to her opposition to the government’s rice price ceiling policy; former Commission on Elections Commissioner Augusto Lagman; former Commission on Filipinos Overseas chair Imelda Nicolas, and Ateneo Human Rights Center executive director Ray Paolo Santiago.
“We are concerned because we are talking about money, [taxpayer] money. This is our money,” Santiago said in a press briefing after the filing of the petition.
“Every Filipino taxpayer expects that their money, the taxes they pay, are being spent properly. If rules are not complied with, it opens the door wider to abuses and to spending our money without clear explanation, no clear process and no apparent vigilance to ensure that these funds are being used appropriately,” added Gutierrez.
Named respondents were the OVP, represented by Vice President Sara Duterte; the Office of the Executive Secretary (OES), represented by Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin, and the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), represented by Budget Secretary Amenah Pangandaman.
Duterte on Tuesday said her office welcomed the petition, noting that it would be a chance to tackle the legality of the transfer of funds.
“We hope that the wisdom of the Supreme Court will pave the way to finally end this issue,” she said in a short video statement.
11-day spending spree
The OVP’s P125 million in confidential funds were part of the P221.4 million in contingent funds released by the OP to the OVP in December 2022.
It had been heavily criticized by lawmakers and other sectors especially after Marikina Rep. and House committee on appropriations senior vice chair Stella Quimbo, during the plenary deliberation on the 2024 national budget last September, revealed that the P125 million was spent by the OVP in just 11 days.
“It is most respectfully prayed that this Honorable Court declare the transfer of the amount of P125 million to the [OVP] as unconstitutional and that the [OVP] be ordered to return the money to the government’s treasury,” read part of the 49-page petition.
“The question of appropriation is important because these funds are the people’s money—and therefore, it is proper that the appropriation and use of the people’s money be properly accounted for,” the petitioners said.They also asserted that the transfer of funds from the national budget to the OVP was an exercise of legislative power.
The petitioners noted that under the 2022 GAA (General Appropriations Act), while there was a heading on “Confidential, Intelligence, and Extraordinary Expenses” and a particular item with an appropriation for “Extraordinary and Miscellaneous Expenses,” there was no item, let alone an appropriation, for “Confidential” or “Intelligence Expenses.”
“Thus, it’s clear that Congress did not intend to create any item for Confidential Expenses… the appropriation done by the DBM is a clear usurpation of the legislative power of Congress to create and fund an item that has not been done so by the Congress itself,” they pointed out.
The petitioners likewise claimed that there was no “delegated legislative power” in the transfer.
The OES earlier said that Marcos himself saw the need to release the fund in support of Duterte’s initiative upon the recommendation of the DBM.
The money was released under Special Provision No. 1 covering the 2022 contingent fund where the President was authorized to approve releases “to cover funding requirements of new or urgent activities of NGA (national government agencies), among others, that need to be implemented during the year,” the OES said.
But the petitioners argued that this provision was not permission from Congress to delegate its legislative power to the OP.
“The appropriation by executive fiat in clear violation of the legislative intent does not fall under the delegated legislative power under Special Provision No. 1 of the contingent fund in the GAA (General Appropriations Act) for 2022,” they pointed out.
The petitioners also noted that the confidential funds did not fall under the funding allowed by the contingent fund, stressing that there was no allocation for the OVP’s confidential funds in the first place.
“The confidential fund cannot be considered as ‘new or urgent activities or projects of national government agencies’ as it is a fund and it is neither an activity nor a project,” they said.
The petitioners added that the proposed reasons for the transfer of the funds, allegedly for the good governance program of the OVP and assigned travels by the President to the Vice President, were covered by specific line items in the budget of the OVP in the national budget for 2022.
The petitioners also claimed that the funds from the contingent fund transferred to the OVP as confidential funds were not savings, making the use of such appropriations improper.
“The Constitution absolutely prohibits transfer of appropriation — with the only exception of the augmentation of savings—which exclusively belongs to a certain class of people, the President being one of the very few exceptions,” the petitioners noted.
They explained that the rationale for such was to keep the executive department and other budget implementers within the limits of their prerogatives during budget execution and to prevent them from unduly transgressing Congress’ power of the purse.
While the President was among those authorized by law to transfer funds within their respective offices, other requisites were not present in the fund transfer to the OVP, the petitioners said.
“The funds transferred … were from the contingency fund and not actual savings. There were also no actual deficiencies incurred in the current year to augment; it was a fund inexistent and unappropriated. It is a particular item of expenditure,” they said.
“Clearly, the utilization of confidential funds for these line item expenses circumvents the fiscal and auditing requirements of public funds,” they said, stressing that the transfer was meant “to avoid fiscal and audit scrutiny” and “is clearly unconstitutional.”
According to petitioners, the transfer was also a circumvention of accountability.
“The transfer to an item created by executive fiat, which is the confidential fund, is nothing more but to circumvent the proper accounting scrutiny required for the use of public funds,” the petitioners said.