Senators question Palace’s 2022 allocation to OVP
Vice President Sara Duterte admitted to senators on Monday that her office received over P221 million in confidential funds from the Office of the President (OP) in December 2022, a budget entry that did not exist in the approved national spending program for that year.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros immediately flagged the OP’s decision to funnel the amount to the Office of the Vice President (OVP), saying it clearly flouted the constitutional prohibition against the allotment of public funds without the approval of Congress.
“Is this a ghost [budget item]? Is there a ghost transfer?” Hontiveros told the Inquirer in a Viber message. “How can they validly transfer funds to an allocation that doesn’t exist in the first place?”
According to her, confidential funds—or lump-sum amounts set aside to bankroll intelligence-gathering programs—are “not cheat codes which can be used to blatantly violate existing laws and regulations.”
Facing the Senate finance committee chaired by Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, Duterte said the OVP had asked Malacañang for the amount in August 2022, around two months after she was sworn into office.
Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III also noted that the P221-million allotment was not included in the OVP’s outlay in the 2022 General Appropriations Act, the last expenditure program prepared by then Vice President Leni Robredo.
Citing official documents, Pimentel said the allocation was apparently sourced from the OP’s “contingency funds and that of the total, P125 million had been liquidated by Duterte’s office as of December 2022.”
“That is practically an augmentation… How do we justify or reason out this situation?” he asked the Vice President. “There was no item in the OVP’s budget for confidential expenses in 2022. It’s not even one peso. It’s nothing. It’s zero.”
Duterte replied that the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) had authorized the fund release four months after her office made the request.
“I think the DBM can better answer the question on the transfer of funds from their source to the OVP,” she said, adding that “nevertheless, we complied with the reportorial requirement for the use of [government] funds as confidential funds.”
House Deputy Minority Leader France Castro earlier disclosed that the OVP apparently disbursed P125 million in confidential funds in just 19 days based on a special allotment release order issued by the DBM and a Commission on Audit (COA) report.
Castro and other opposition lawmakers tried to ask Duterte about the matter, but were prevented by her political allies when the House of Representatives held a hearing last week on the OVP’s P2.38-billion proposed budget for 2024.
While it was approved after just 22 minutes by a House committee, the Senate took longer to deliberate on the budget request.
During the hearing, which lasted for an hour and a half, Duterte mostly directed the questions from senators to her subordinates.
Hontiveros, however, asked her to directly respond to her queries about the OVP’s spending plan, particularly its request for P500 million in confidential funds for a second straight year.
The opposition senator noted that just like this year, the OVP’s confidential funds allocation would be bigger compared to those of the Department of National Defense (P87 million) and National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (P1 million).
Hontiveros wondered why the OVP would need such a big amount when Duterte herself had acknowledged that her sole constitutional duty as Vice President was “only to be a reserve, a benchwarmer… in the event the President cannot discharge his functions.”
Duterte said the allocation was necessary “for the safe, secure and successful implementation” of the OVP’s projects, including the distribution of bread for undernourished children.
She also confirmed that the OVP had been spying on certain personalities through the 433-strong Vice Presidential Security and Protection Group.
One such operation, Duterte said, resulted in the arrest and detention of an individual who had allegedly illegally facilitated a request for financial aid from her office.
When Hontiveros pointed out that such activities were already part of the mandate of law enforcement agencies, Duterte cited a joint circular issued in 2015 by the COA and DBM that allowed civilian state agencies to spend for confidential programs.
Up to Congress
“We can only propose, but we are not insisting. We can live without confidential funds,” Duterte said, adding:
“But of course, our work will be much easier if we have the flexibility of confidential funds in monitoring the safe, secure and successful implementation of the programs, projects and activities of the OVP.”
Duterte, the concurrent Department of Education (DepEd) secretary, was also quizzed by senators over the agency’s P150-million confidential fund request which, according to them, would be better spent on building classrooms, hiring teachers and raising their salaries, instead of gathering intelligence.
According to Education Undersecretary Michael Poa, the department originally proposed a P953-billion budget for 2024, but this was slashed to P756 billion.
The biggest cuts, he said, were funding for new classrooms (from P86 billion to P19.6 billion), feeding program (from P70 billion to P11.7 billion), and purchase of school furniture (from P2.4 billion to P44 million).
Pimentel commented that the proposed P150 million could instead be used to build 60 classrooms.
Poa replied that DepEd would leave it to Congress to decide whether or not to grant its request.
In response to Hontiveros’ point that intelligence gathering was not part of DepEd’s mandate under the law, Duterte maintained that confidential funds would help the agency provide “accessible, equitable and quality basic education.”
She added that DepEd’s intelligence gathering efforts were directed at “anti-insurgency, antiterrorism and violent extremism with regard to pornography, child pornography, drug cases, criminality and gangsterism.”
‘Congress can do it’
Castro, meanwhile, called the OVP the “most wasteful and inefficient aid-giving” agency because of its P500-million confidential fund request and the cost of securing Duterte.
“It came from Duterte herself that ‘we are not insisting, we can live without confidential funds. So Congress can do it by itself,” Castro said in a statement. “Duterte herself admitted that the confidential fund is not essential to the functions of her office. Her P500 million is an extravagance that Filipino taxpayers cannot afford to sustain.”
In reaction to a COA report that of the OVP’s 683 personnel in 2022, 433 were part of the Vice Presidential Security Group, Duterte said on Monday that this was necessary to protect her and “all future vice presidents” in the event of a potential political split between the country’s top two officials.
The OVP in 2021 under Robredo had 78 military detailed personnel.
But Duterte dismissed the comparison, calling it “absurd and completely lacking in basis.”
—WITH REPORTS FROM JULIE M. AURELIO AND KRIXIA SUBINGSUBING INQ
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