Romualdez, House spent P39M on trips in 2023, not P1.8B – Sec Gen Velasco
MANILA, Philippines — The travel expenses incurred by House Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, all other lawmakers, and officials in House secretariat from January 2023 to October 2023 amounted to P39.6 million.
The figure was given by House Secretary General Reginald Velasco during the hearing of House committee on legislative franchises on Thursday.
His testimony was meant to refute the allegation of one of the hosts of broadcast station Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI).
The host had said the travel expenses of Romualdez alone for one year reached P1.8 billion.
However, according to Velasco, financial reports on the foreign travels of the Speaker showed Romualdez and his staffers spent P4.3 million during the ten months of this year.
Meanwhile, the rest of House lawmakers and their employees on official travel spent P35.2 million.
“I have here the financial reports on the foreign travel, since foreign travel was the one mentioned in that program,” Velasco told the panel, after being asked by Surigao del Sur 2nd District Johnny Pimentel.
“Number one, for the Office of the Speaker — these are the staff, members of the Speaker(’s office) who accompany him on all his foreign trips, the total expenses of the Office of the Speaker from January to October this year is P4,347,712.58,” the Secretary General disclosed.
“Now, for all the congressmen and the secretariat – these would cover the travel expenses of House members who are on official trips; the total for the same period — for the period covering January to October 2023 – is P35,257,411.01,” he went on.
“The total for all – Office of the Speaker, and the House secretariat, and members of the Congress, who go on official trips – P39,605,123.61,” Velasco summed up.
In response, Pimentel said it is clear the P39 million travel expense is way too far from the P1.8 billion quoted by an SMNI host on ‘Laban Kasama ang Bayan’ program.
Pimentel then asked SMNI representatives why they should not be held liable for breaching Section 4 of their legislative franchise.
This portion states the network cannot deliberately use the channel to spread false information.
“So, it is very clear, Mr. Chair, the record shows that Congress, for the year 2023, has spent only P39 million. This is very far from the SMNI allegation that Congress has spent P1.8 billion,” Pimentel made the comparison.
“So, it is very clear here, according to your franchise, you cannot give wrong reports to the public or deliberately false information,” the lawmaker told SMNI officials.
“Now, Mr. Chair, my question is to SMNI: Why should you not be held liable when it is very clear that you have violated Section 4 of your franchise?” Pimentel asked.
Mark Tolentino, legal counsel of Swara Sug Media Corporation, which handles SMNI, said the hosts were not accusing Romualdez of spending P1.8 billion in trips.
He said the hosts were merely asking a question during the TV program.
Tolentino was referring to ‘Laban Kasama ng Bayan’ host and self-proclaimed former rebel Jeffrey Celis, who said that “for Speaker Martin Romualdez, his travel cost is at P1.8 billion.”
“P1.8 billion for almost one year lang. Sa kanya lang. Kaya nagtatanong itong ating source from Congress. P1.8 billion,” Celis had said.
(P1.8 billion for almost one year only. That’s only for him. That’s why our source from Congress is asking. P1.8 billion.)
“Sabi niya, paki-tanong, Ka Eric, at paki-explain din,” the host continued.
(Please ask this Ka Eric and kindly explain.)
“Ito ay breaking information coming from Congress, mismong source,” Celis pointed out.
(This is a piece of breaking information coming from Congress, my own source.)
Tolentino further said the burden of proving bad faith in mentioning P1.8 billion lies on the accuser.
“I’d like to invoke the jurisprudence of the Philippine Supreme Court about freedom of press and freedom of expression […],” Tolentino said.
“There is a jurisprudence that freedom of press and freedom of expression include some […] false or inaccurate statement, if there’s any,” he told the committee.
“Freedom of press and freedom of expression is one of the highest forms of constitutional right in our Philippine constitution,” the lawyer said.
“And third, Mr. Chair, in every act, provided under the Civil Code, there is a presumption of good faith,” Tolentino cited.
“So, the one who (accuses) bad faith on the part of SMNI, the one who alleged that there is violation of Republic Act 11422, should be the one to prove it, because we are presumed innocent,” he explained.
“We are presumed (to be) doing (what is) within the bounds of the law,” Tolentino repeated.
The hearing of House panel was prompted by the speech of Quezon 2nd District Representative David Suarez on Tuesday.
Suarez had asked the committee to exercise its oversight function after Velasco denied the existence of a P1.8 billion travel expense supposedly attributable to Romualdez.
On Wednesday, Suarez said he had on hand the documents containing the Speaker’s traveling expenses, and the amounts were different from what the SMNI host had claimed.