Checking executive excess
Last Monday, the Senate finance committee deferred the approval of the Office of the Solicitor General’s (OSG) proposed P1.116-billion budget for 2021 on grave concerns over increased allocations for travel and confidential funds amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and serious questions about the extraordinarily high salary and allowances of SolGen Jose Calida.
Sen. Francis Tolentino, who moved for the deferment of the approval during the online budget hearing, was particularly irked by the OSG’s proposal for a travel budget of P24.499 million in 2021, of which 87.75 percent had been earmarked for foreign trips.
“Kasagsagan pa next year ng COVID-19. Saan naman kayo mag-fo-foreign travel?” asked an incredulous Tolentino. “Ngayon malaki pa hinihingi niyo. Hindi ko alam saan kayo mag-ta-travel. Hindi naman siguro sa Boracay.”
This is not the first time that the OSG had been called out for its cavalier use of taxpayer money for travel.
In 2018, the Commission on Audit questioned the OSG for having spent P7.128 million on plane tickets for foreign travel without the necessary documents, such as three quotations from travel agencies to get the most competitive bid, which are required to prevent corruption.
Plus, it spent another P1.27 million for training in hotels and restaurants “not usually used for government-sponsored international conventions.” The COA said that the OSG could have conducted questioned activities in office premises, government facilities, or in other hotels and restaurants “that would charge lower costs.”
That reprimand to use taxpayer money more prudently was seemingly given short shrift, because the OSG ran afoul yet again of COA rules in 2019, when its grant and liquidation of cash advances amounting to P1.16 million for local and foreign travels were flagged for not being supported with “requisite” documents.
The OSG’s bid for an even higher travel fund for next year is on top of the proposed quadrupling of the agency’s confidential funds to P19.2 million from just P5 million in 2019, which likewise caught Tolentino’s ire. As ABS-CBN reported: “Under the law, confidential funds may only be used for programs related to national security and peace and order, Tolentino said. ‘I don’t see paano magkakaroon ng national security and peace and order budget ang inyong office.’”
Calida was not in the hearing (he was supposedly advised by his doctor to get five days’ rest), but Tolentino also grilled the OSG on Calida’s lavish salary and allowances despite COA rules against exorbitant benefits. The senator noted that according to a COA report in July, Calida earned P16.95 million in 2019, including P11.9 million in allowances and honoraria, more than quadruple his basic salary of P2.9 million, making him the second highest earner among government officials and the highest-paid state lawyer in the country’s history. It was a jump from 2018 when he was ranked sixth.
Calida also ended up the lone nonbanker in the Top 10, putting him next only to former United Coconut Planters Bank president Higinio Macadaeg Jr. and even edging out Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Benjamin Diokno.
“A COA report [noted] that former Solicitor General [Francis] Jardeleza did not receive even half of what Calida earned. How did this happen?” Tolentino asked.
The OSG’s explanation was that Calida receives allowances from client-agencies for the OSG’s legal services, even if the COA had issued a circular limiting government officials’ allowances to less than half of their annual salary. Tolentino’s conclusion: “Apparently the solicitor general has defied the COA memorandum.”
Over at the House, the budget of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) met a similar fate, getting slapped a deferment after House Minority Leader Rep. Bienvenido Abante Jr. moved to hold deliberations until PCOO Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy issues an “unconditional” apology for her reckless, slanderous posts red-tagging members of the Makabayan bloc without any evidence to back up her claims.
Amid calls for her resignation, a defiant Badoy said she would resign but only if her conditions are met, among them that the Makabayan lawmakers denounce the communist rebels’ atrocities. Abante was having none of it: “An apology is not an apology if it comes with strings attached.” More to the point, it was “inappropriate and unbecoming” of a public official like Badoy, he said, to wantonly “accuse members of the House of being terrorists.”
Standing up for their minority colleagues and resident dissenters is the right thing for the House to do, as is the Senate’s vigorous scrutiny of the OSG’s budget. This is Congress’ job, after all — checking the executive against excesses and firmly demanding accountability for the use of public money. If only it could do more of it, instead of the sham, ugly intramurals the country has become used to seeing, especially lately, from its legislators.
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