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Duterte reminded: COA an independent body, necessary check on state spending

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Duterte reminded: COA an independent body, necessary check on state spending
President Rodrigo Duterte gives his weekly public address on August 16, 2021
Presidential photo / Roemari Limosnero

MANILA, Philippines — State auditors, the latest target of President Rodrigo Duterte's ire, received support from lawmakers on Tuesday after the president told them to stop publishing preliminary audit reports that he said are unfair to government agencies.

The president, in a taped speech aired past midnight on Tuesday, cursed at the Commission on Audit and told it to refrain from "flagging" government transactions and programs as "it will condemn the agency or the person." 

It came as COA's yearly reports detailed supposed deficiencies in government spending. Of particular note was the Department of Health and its use of P67.32 billion in COVID-19 funds. 

COA, like other constitutional commissions, is independent from the executive branch of government. 

"It is state auditors who [do the] check and balance of government expenditure so we have to respect what they say," said Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri over ANC's "Headstart."

Zubiri said the commission plays "a very important role in good governance," and added policymakers would do well than to just dismiss their findings. 

DOH, under Secretary Francisco Duque III, has come under scrutiny anew because of the audit report, which noted disbursements that were not supported by documents. Agencies are allowed to address deficiencies and submit documentation to clarify COA findings.

The DOH has maintained all funds have been accounted for. In his taped address, Duterte also said he would not allow Duque to resign.

"It is not COA that is the problem but negligence," said Sen. Francis Pangilinan in Flipino, "as well as corruption and poor management in the DOH that Malacañang is condoning."

'No jurisdiction over COA'

Meanwhile, two members of the House of Representatives sought to highlight that it is not in Duterte's powers as chief executive to say when the audit commission should release its findings.

They also stressed the public's right to information on how government funds are being spent.

"[He] conveniently forgot that COA is an independent constitutional commission which is not accountable to the president," said Rep. Edcel Lagman (Albay) in a statement.

"Instead of immobilizing COA, Duterte must order the prosecution of the responsible officials of the agencies flagged by COA and accord them due process," Lagman added. 

The COA merely flagged deficiencies and did not conclude that money was lost to corruption. In its audit of the health department, COA said the deficiencies kept the government from making the best use of funds allocated for pandemic response.

Deputy Speaker Rufus Rodriguez (Cagayan de Oro), meanwhile, said agencies cannot ignore the commission's findings even if Duterte says they should.  

"In fact, that should be their primary concern," said Rodriguez, a lawyer. "If they're not abel to explain the deficiencies as found by COA, they will be responsible criminally because this will lead to malversation of funds and corruption."

No threats? 

Malacañang, in seeking to clarify Duterte's remarks, claimed that the president was not threatening state auditors, whom he had previously said should be thrown down the stairs.

"He expressed frustrations," said presidential spokesperson Harry Roque. "That's just his style. You can't teach an old horse new tricks."

He said that the public is used to Duterte's way of expressing himself by now.

The comments at the taped meeting were not Duterte's first against the Commission on Audit.

In 2019, he hurled expletives at government auditors, and "joked" they should be kidnapped and tortured. A year before that, he also lashed out at COA and suggested to then Ilocos Gov. Imee Marcos to push them down the stairs.

Marcos had complained the body made it hard for the provincial government to release cash advances for buying construction materials for typhoon rehabilitation projects.

The Palace said all investigations into the DOH's COVID-19 spending can continue despite Duterte's remarks. — Christian Deiparine

COMMISSION ON AUDIT EDCEL LAGMAN FRANCIS PANGILINAN JUAN MIGUEL ZUBIRI RODRIGO DUTERTE RUFUS RODRIGUEZ
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