The Office of the Ombudsman and Commission on Audit should follow the money trail of unutilized funds and savings to discover corruption in the government, Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate said on Sunday.
The agencies should follow the trail “to unearth corruption in the Duterte administration,” the lawmaker said.
“This pattern of supposed inefficiency has become suspicious since President Duterte does not divulge his yearly overall savings since he sat in office. It is anomalous that Congress is forced to approve the yearly budget without knowing the absorptive capacity of the receiving agencies that it will fund,” he said.
In the Senate, Senator Richard J. Gordon stressed that the responsibility of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III does not stop in releasing the special risk allowances to medical frontliners amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Duque, Gordon said, must make sure that the money reaches the intended recipients.
Amid the pandemic, Gordon, as Chairman of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, noted that the country is “fighting a medical war.”
"No government worth its salt should ever allow its soldiers, the medical workers, in this case to go to war without adequate support and compensation,” Gordon said.
Senator Christopher "Bong" Go, a member of the Blue Ribbon Committee, said all government agencies should be given the opportunity to answer and rectify the observations by the COA, not just the Department of Budget and Management and the Department of Health, on the allowances for frontliners.
"It is their job to rectify the observation by COA within (the specified period). If not fixed, charges should be filed immediately to stop suspicions," said Go.
He stressed that government agencies must also be given the chance to rectify issues in accordance with the processes provided by law. If irregularities are indeed proven, he said cases must be filed against those involved to hold them accountable.
Zarate noted the DBM has already issued National Budget Circular 586, which is trying to collect the expected savings from the 2020 General Appropriations Act from government agencies.
“This NBC 586 covers released allotments under the FY 2020 GAA, which remain unobligated until May 15, 2021, but not expressly earmarked for the implementation of programs/activities/projects addressing the COVID-19 pandemic,” the solon said.
These allotments “can be realigned by the President as he sees fit.
This is a Disbursement Acceleration Program-like savings and a form of presidential pork," he added.
“Without proper accounting, we cannot blame the people for thinking that this administration is trying to create an enormous war chest in the run up for the 2022 elections," Zarate stated.
Last June, the Department of Health (DOH) announced that the P9 billion fund for the new tranche of special risk allowance (SRA) for health workers has been released to the agency’s regional offices.
However, some health workers are complaining they are not getting the right benefits due to them as provided by law.
"And this problem has become so grave that they now mull mass resignation over lack of benefits,” said Gordon.
The Blue Ribbon started last Wednesday its probe triggered by the COA report that stated the DOH did not comply with the existing laws and regulations in handling P67 billion worth of COVID funds.
Several complaints from healthcare workers regarding the delay in the issuance of their benefits such as the active hazard duty pay (AHDP) and special risk allowance (SRA), among others, were raised.
“Not only are our health workers getting sick and dying of COVID-19; they are also demoralized,” Gordon said.
Sen. Grace Poe stressed that underspending, delayed and wasteful spending of COVID-19 response fund must have no room in the 2022 budget.
“Budget that is unspent means services undelivered especially to the poor in dire need during this pandemic,” Poe said.
At a time when our people are more reliant than ever on the provision of essential services, she said government disposition of funds should be efficient, on-target and prompt.
Rebooting an economy dampened by the virus “calls for vibrant spending up to the last peso authorized by the law,” she added.
"We assure a thorough scrutiny of the proposed budget when it reaches the Senate," Poe said.
Go, chair of the Senate committee on health, noted that Filipino people have the right to know the truth about how public funds were spent, as he backed the Senate probe on the use of COVID-19 funds.
He then encouraged the DOH, as well as concerned agencies, to ensure that COVID-19 funds are spent as soon as possible as provided by law, with no irregularities involved.
But Go reminded fellow lawmakers and the public that while they rigorously seek the truth, objectivity must be maintained in order not to pass judgment too early without knowing all the facts.
During a Senate hearing on August 18, former Budget Undersecretary
Lloyd Christopher Lao was mentioned when senators brought up the issue of prices of masks and face shields bought by the government in the early part of the pandemic that had been included in COA’s initial findings.
Lao, in a television interview, defended himself, saying the masks and face shields were not overpriced and that the prices were “one of the cheapest” during that time last year.
Citing a report presented by Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, Go said supplies of masks and face shields were low during the start of the pandemic last year.
“It was the President who ordered us to get supplies but it's the job of the Executive — DBM, DOH — to explain for the public to understand,” the senator added, as he urged the concerned agencies to fully explain the purchases being questioned.
Go also clarified that Lao was never his aide, despite claims made by various people.
“DBM USec. Lao was a former campaign lawyer of President Duterte in 2016. He also served at the Presidential Management Staff in Malacanang. He was not directly under me,” explained the senator.
Go said that his office as Special Assistant to the President from 2016 to 2018 only had supervisory powers over the PMS, where Lao belonged then, as well as other offices in the OP, and they do not report directly to him, nor do they function as his aides.