Sara gives up seeking P650M in secret funds
After relentless opposition from activists and many lawmakers, Vice President Sara Duterte on Thursday dropped her requests for confidential funds (CF) amounting to P500 million for her office and another P150 million for the Department of Education (DepEd), which she heads.
The controversy over the Vice President’s request for secret funds has prompted scrutiny of the large amount and propriety of the confidential and intelligence fund (CIF) totaling P4.5 billion requested by the Office of the President (OP), which is nearly half of the P10.64-billion CIF request in the 2024 budget.
During a hearing on the proposed P5.768-trillion national budget for 2024 by the Senate finance committee which he heads, Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara said the Office of the Vice President (OVP) would “no longer pursue” her CF request “because it seems to be divisive.”
“As the VP, she swore an oath to keep the country peaceful and strong,” he said, reading a statement from Duterte.
Following congressional rules on budget hearings, the heads of government agencies defending their fund requests speak through lawmakers sponsoring their respective budgets.
For DepEd, Sen. Pia Cayetano said the Vice President appealed that the P150 million in her CF request for the department be realigned to its National Learning Recovery Program.
Citing Duterte’s statement, Cayetano said that “we do not expect good scores” in the 2022 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which was expected to be released in December.
In the 2018 Pisa, the Philippines was the worst among 79 countries in reading literacy and second lowest in both mathematical and scientific literacy.
The senators tackled separately the proposed P1.874-billion 2024 budget for the OVP and the P758.59 billion for DepEd. It is unlikely that the amounts as transmitted by the House of Representatives included the CF requests.
Opposition Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III praised Duterte’s decision not to defer to the “wisdom” of the Senate to restore the confidential fund, which was scrapped by the House of Representatives, and to declare that “she does not want it anymore.”
Pimentel also focused attention on Malacañang’s “unreasonable” requests for CIF for the OP as a civilian agency when President Marcos himself was already a “consumer” of information gathered by various state agencies like the military and police.
The Senate minority leader said that cutting back on CIF allocations would be a cost-saving measure to allow the country to cope with the effects of the ballooning national debt, which amounted to P14.27 trillion in September.
“Our President is an Ilocano so I appeal to his Ilocano nature to review the amounts because these contribute to the bottomline of the budget, contribute to the [budget] deficit, which contributes to the [national] debt,” he said.
He also said the OP spends the CIF and it reports its expenditure to itself and this “ruins the whole system of controls and checks.”
Pimentel said that in “due time” activists may file a case in the Supreme Court to “to test the legality of the grant of intelligence fund to the OP being a civilian agency.”
According to Angara, the OVP’s proposed CF was intended to support the “safe implementation” of its programs, activities and projects to “alleviate poverty and promote the general welfare of each and every Filipino family.”
The use of confidential funds, sometimes referred to by some lawmakers and critics as secret funds because of its special auditing, is regulated by the Joint Circular No. 2015-01 of five agencies—the departments of budget, interior and local government, national defense, Commission on Audit, and the Governance Commission for Government-Owned and -Controlled Corporations.
The funds are mainly intended for law enforcement, defense and national security.
The circular defines confidential expenses as those associated with surveillance activities that are intended to support an agency’s operations while intelligence expenses are those for information-gathering activities that have a direct impact on national security by the military, police, and other uniformed personnel, as well as intelligence agencies.
‘Safe houses,’ rewards
According to the circular, confidential funds may be used to “purchase” information needed to formulate programs, activities and projects “relevant to national security and peace and order.”
They may also be used to rent vehicles, maintain “safe houses,” buy or rent supplies or equipment for confidential operations, pay rewards to informers and uncover or prevent illegal activities that pose a “clear and present danger” to personnel and property.
They cannot be used for salaries, wages, additional compensation, allowances or “fringe benefits” of government officials and employees. Representation expenses, consultancy fees or entertainment expenses are disallowed. The funds also cannot be used to construct buildings or houses.
The total P650 million in confidential funds that Duterte had requested for next year was given to her for spending in 2023 without much opposition from Congress when it passed this year’s budget.
During a briefing on the 2024 budget in September, Duterte said the OVP “can live without confidential funds,” although their work would be “much easier” with such funds.
Shortly after, in a speech on Oct. 4, she called critics of the proposed funding as “enemies of peace” who had “insidious motivations.”
Duterte has also been under fire for getting P125 million from the Office of the President’s contingency fund that was converted into confidential funds last year.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros quizzed Angara on how the OVP spent that amount in just 11 days in December 2022, or an average of P11 million a day.
According to Angara, the OVP had “numerous programs,” including “libreng sakay” (free rides), opening of several satellite offices, and cash grants for burial and medical assistance.
These are typical expenditure items of local governments.
Hontiveros said these expenditures could have been covered by the OVP’s regular budget, which may be covered by regular auditing procedures, unlike confidential funds.
As the Senate held the deliberations on Thursday, civil society groups composed of farmers and rural-based sectors reiterated their call to scrap CIFs and other funding allocations similar to the pork barrel.
The Kilusang Magsasaka ng Pilipinas, Amihan, Pamalakaya and Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura urged lawmakers to rechannel the money to fund public hospitals, schools, housing programs, food production and other social services.
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