Guarding intel funds
Despite reservations expressed by minority senators on the confidential and intelligence funds (CIF) included in the appropriation for the Department of Education (DepEd) and the Office of the Vice President (OVP), Congress on Monday approved the P5.268-trillion proposed budget for 2023, leaving intact the controversial CIF that totaled P9.3 billion for several agencies.
Of the CIFs in next year’s budget, P4.5 billion will go to the Office of the President, P500 million to the OVP, and P150 million to DepEd. The Senate earlier reduced the DepEd CIF allocation to P30 million, with minority senators saying that intelligence gathering is after all the mandate of intelligence agencies.
Restoring DepEd’s CIF would “secure the future of our children … [who might be] recruited and led to the wrong path,” contended House appropriations panel chair Rep. Elizaldy Co, echoing Vice President and DepEd Secretary Duterte, who earlier said the agency’s CIF would address security issues in school campuses, including the students’ alleged recruitment to insurgency.
The move to return DepEd’s full CIF “disappointed” Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III, who also questioned the “last-minute” insertions in the proposed budget that were mentioned only in the bicameral deliberations, thus escaping scrutiny from senators who could have “discussed them better.” Was it a “conscious” oversight, he asked. “It seems like the bicam (bicameral committee) is now acting like a third House,” he added.
By its actions, Congress “missed an opportunity to show its independence … and failed to demonstrate that we do hold the power of the purse,” noted Senate Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros. She added: “The protection given to public funds seems to have been dulled by granting fully all the requests for confidential funds under the Marcos-Duterte administration … [with] the legislature [even agreeing] to remove provisions that require congressional reporting of the utilization plan and disbursement of the [CIFs.]”
With Congress proving to be “malleable to the whims of the administration,” how can it be expected to exercise checks and balances in government, and ensure accountability and transparency? Hontiveros asked.
It’s a question that bears repeating.
Because despite the Senate’s adoption in November of a resolution forming an oversight committee for confidential and intelligence funds, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri himself admitted that while all funds are subject to scrutiny by the Commission on Audit (COA), CIFs are “not part of the usual procedures.”
Sen. Sonny Angara, chair of the Senate committee on finance, said as much. Although COA is still mandated to look into the use of the CIF, the results are not made public unlike regular audits, he pointed out. “Because of the nature of these funds, since they are linked to national security, safety, counterterrorism, you cannot just expose these publicly.”
This is hardly reassuring, given the previous administration’s notorious record on the lack of transparency in government transactions involving taxpayer money, and the reluctance (timidity, cowardice?) of Congress to impose sanctions on erring officials and personnel. Has anybody been prosecuted in the P12-billion Department of Health-Pharmally deal in overpriced and shoddy pandemic supplies despite evidence linking several top officials to it?
And how to explain why Congress fully restored the P10-billion budget of the notorious National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict when several plenary debates have established its dubious record: failure to identify intended projects in violation of budget regulations, the inefficient implementation of and failure to submit accomplishment reports on such projects for the past two years despite demands from the Department of Budget and Management?
As Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman last week cautioned on the P9.29 billion in CIF for various departments: “The more enormous the funds are, the greater … the possibility of graft.”
With Congress being dominated by administration allies and apparently failing to heed Lagman’s counsel for it to “exercise judiciousness and frugality in the allocation of confidential and intelligence funds,” it is now up to the more independent and conscientious lawmakers to show due diligence and assert Congress’ oversight powers in monitoring public expenditures to limit the opportunities for plunder.
The COA, too, must assert its constitutional mandate to ensure accountability and transparency on the use of the CIF. As one of the signatories of Joint Circular No. 2015-01, titled “Guidelines on the Entitlement, Release, Use, Reporting, and Audit of Confidential and/or Intelligence Funds,” it has a strong legal instrument to counter any move by some agencies to appropriate the CIF for dubious uses. Media, as well as civil society and ordinary citizens, must be vigilant and hold public officials to their promise to “guard well” the use of taxpayer money.
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