On Sept. 16, after listening to Ilocos Norte Gov. Imee Marcos gripe during a command conference about how the Commission on Audit (COA) was supposedly making it difficult to make cash advances to help her typhoon-hit province, President Duterte said something shocking: He imperiously asked the room if there was a COA representative present, then said that COA staff should be thrown down the stairs (“ihulog sa hagdanan”) so that no reports would be made.
Marcos clapped enthusiastically and said, “Yes, yes, yes!”
Was it a joke?
The Palace said so afterwards.
But take note of the seriousness of the rest of Mr. Duterte’s remarks: “Maniwala ka niyang COA na ’yan. Sabihin mo sabi ni Duterte, shut up.”
Why was Mr. Duterte disparaging an independent body enshrined in the Constitution, and whose very function is indispensable to his avowed campaign against government corruption?
Was it because he — and Marcos — have seen their own offices flagged on multiple occasions by the COA for the questionable use of public funds?
An audit report by the COA questioned the hiring, for example, of 11,246 contractual workers in 2014 by the office of then Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte, costing the city government some P708 million.
The COA cited the lack of a hiring manual that opened the hiring of contractual workers to patronage politics.
Davao City, now under the helm of Mayor Sara Duterte, again appeared in the 2017 annual report of the COA, which questioned some P569.86 million worth of inventory and transactions due to improper record-keeping and the lack of supporting documents.
Marcos’ office, meanwhile, was flagged for the questionable use of cash advances to pay for P26 million worth of supplies, including such items as busts of her father, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The same method was supposed to have been applied in the controversial P66-million purchase of vehicles in 2011 that was the subject of a congressional inquiry.
The COA’s constitutional duty — to painstakingly comb through how government funds are spent, without fear or favor, to make sure public money is used wisely, and not wasted or pocketed — is critical work that should, in fact, endear the office to Mr. Duterte. The President, after all, has declared that he would not tolerate “even a whiff of corruption.”
But the opposite appeared to be on display in that Sunday command conference, with Mr. Duterte showing his contempt for the COA.
His words earned a sharp rebuttal from former COA commissioner Heidi Mendoza, who was instrumental in uncovering, among others, anomalous transactions in the military during the time of former president and now Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
“Give us respect for we deserve it,” said the COA veteran and now undersecretary general for the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services in a Facebook post. “We are a longstanding, dignified institution whose men and women spent long hours working for its flag and our people. Some of our own even laid their lives defending and protecting public coffers… Not one of the past Honorable Presidents of our land has called on another institution subject under our authority to defy our rules.”
Perhaps Mr. Duterte’s hostility also has to do with the COA’s numerous reports of unauthorized expenses and misdeeds by the “best and the brightest” that he has appointed to office.
In July 2018, the COA questioned some P19 million worth of contracts and sponsorships approved by former tourism promotions board head Cesar Montano.
The COA also recommended the filing of charges against Malacañang’s communications department over P38 million worth of “deficient” disbursements for the 2017 Asean Summit.
In its 2017 audit report, the COA flagged the Presidential Communications Operations Office for its purchase of goods and services worth P27.503 million and van rentals worth P7.264 million.
Officials and employees of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. were also questioned for excessive perks totaling P334.8 million in 2017.
And in April this year, the COA rapped the Department of Tourism under former secretary Wanda Tulfo-Teo for paying in 2017 P60 million worth of advertisements to a government television program produced by her brother, Ben, and cohosted by another brother, Erwin, without a memorandum of agreement.
And so on.
These anomalies would not have come to light without the committed, vital work of the men and women of the COA. If anything, they deserve to be commended by the President, not kicked to the curb.
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