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Commentary

The audacity of corruption

/ 05:14 AM December 26, 2018

The saga of the public finance wrangle unfolding in the House of Representatives, with Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno besieged with questions by a predecessor of his, Arroyo-era budget secretary Rolando Andaya Jr., is for sure not entertaining to the public, save for the theatrics that go with it. It must be no joke to cheat a former budget secretary about fiscal matters, even as it might not just be a simple case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Andaya’s beef against Diokno is not novel, though. Andaya accuses Diokno of favoring his in-laws in Sorsogon province with billions of public funds sunk in flood control projects, in a place never known to be flood-prone. In the parlance of the Ombudsman, the actuation of Diokno in giving a relative by affinity undue advantage or unwarranted benefit through favored access to public funds, as charged by Andaya, is unlawful. It is corruption pure and simple, as defined and proscribed by Republic Act No. 3019, otherwise known as the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

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The Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) must be keenly observing the Andaya-Diokno tiff. Will the PACC also charge Diokno before the Office of the Ombudsman, as the PACC did with Andaya?

A flood control project is a public works contractor’s delight. The margin of profit is humongous and the trail of corruption is easy to bury, literally, in the bosom of the earth or depths of waters. It is almost impossible to audit a completed flood control project vis-à-vis its actual cost, especially when the auditors have blinders called currency patch.

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A flood control project is the juiciest of them all. The actual cost of the project ranges from only 40-50 percent of the total budget allocation, while the rest goes to payola for the planners down to the lowliest barangay official, whose signature on a supporting document is required by the Commission on Audit.

While the power to appropriate public funds is vested in the legislature, the power to release them belongs to the Department of Budget and Management (DBM). The discretion is almost beyond review, especially with a trusting chief executive who grants autonomy to his subalterns. Fund utilization starts and ends with the budget department, which proposes the budget to the legislature and disburses the funds to the end users.

In a flood control project, the obligation to fund is done only after public bidding. No infrastructure project is bid out without a special allotment release order (Saro) being first issued by the DBM. The Saro issuance is contractor-blind, because there is as yet no bidding conducted. The favored contractor could lose in the ensuing public bidding.

But this risk will soon be eliminated when the proposed General Appropriations Act (GAA) of 2019  is enacted. It introduces a new fiscal paradigm called cash-based budgeting. It will do away with the Saro, and the GAA will ipso facto serve as the authority to obligate public funds that will be released to an agency with an already identified contractor. The DBM can withhold the release of funds if the contractor is not favored.  The discretion of the budget secretary over the fund releases thus becomes greater.

What is appalling in the accusation of Andaya against Diokno, if true, is the latter’s gall to dip his fingers into public funds to favor relatives right smack in the face of the President’s much-vaunted campaign against corruption. Andaya’s charge against Diokno is not just a whiff of corruption; it is a tempest brewing. The President’s ears should hear, if they haven’t yet, the noise wrought by the unpalatable exchanges between accountable public officials. Surely, it is no joke to audaciously cross a president.

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Frank E. Lobrigo practiced law for 20 years. He is a law lecturer and JSD student at San Beda College Graduate School of Law in Manila.

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TAGS: Benjamin Diokno, corruption, flood-control projects, Frank E. Lobrigo, Inquirer Commentary, PACC, Presidential Anti-Corruption Committee, Rolando Andaya Jr.
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