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Outgoing Solicitor General Jose Calida is new COA chairman

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Outgoing Solicitor General Jose Calida is new COA chairman
Solicitor General Jose Calida defended the Philippine government officials before the Supreme Court during the oral arguments on petitions challenging the Duterte administration's drug war.
The STAR / Miguel de Guzman, File

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 5:19 p.m.) — Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has appointed outgoing Solicitor General Jose Calida as the new chairman of the Commission on Audit, incoming press secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles said in a press briefing on Wednesday afternoon.

Calida will be taking the post of Rizalina Noval Justol, ad interim COA chairman, whose appointment was bypassed by the congressional Commission on Appointments earlier this month.

As the COA chairperson, Calida will lead the independent constitutional office in charge of checking and auditing the use of funds and properties owned by the Philippine government under its agencies.

State auditors make sure all the financial statements submitted by government offices are within the public sector accounting standards and all expenses are accounted for, providing annual audit reports to the president and the congress. 

The COA flags irregularities, such as unaccounted or unpaid obligations, of which the OSG under Calida’s leadership was previously a subject of. 

In 2018, state auditors called the attention of the OSG when it granted a P10.774-million excess honoraria and allowances to 15 officials, including Calida. The COA also noted that the allowances were not disclosed by the OSG lawyers named in the report.

The audit body emphasized that additional compensation given to those serving in the government should not go beyond 50 percent of their annual basic salary. Calida in 2017 received P8.376 million in allowances, going beyond the 50 percent limit by P7.462 million as his annual basic salary was P1.828 million. 

READ: COA flags 'excessive allowances' of Calida and OSG lawyers

Both Calida and his predecessor, Florin Hilbay, then said that honoraria and allowances received by OSG lawyers are legal. 

When incoming press secretary Cruz-Angeles asked reporters if they had more questions during the briefing on Wednesday, she ignored a Rappler reporter who was not able to question Calida’s qualifications to lead the COA given Calida’s history with state auditors. 

In 2019, the state auditor also flagged the OSG for airfare expenses accumulated in its 2018 foreign trips that totalled P7.128 million and were “not supported by complete documents.”

Aside from its untraced travel expenses, the OSG was also called out for their local training expenses that ballooned to over P1.27 million for opting to spend them in hotels and restaurants instead of in office premises. 

The COA in 2019 also flagged the OSG for a P105,471 honoraria payment, supplies and equipment expenses worth over P5.510 million.

The following year, the OSG was called out because of P1.169-million worth of cash advances to pay for more local and foreign travels of its lawyers in 2019, which was again unsupported by required documents.

According to a Rappler report, Calida will be leaving his post as the chief state lawyer with a doubled net worth of P73.4 million in 2021, more than half of his declared P36.9 million in 2017.

COA bypass 

Calida will be taking the post of ad interim COA chairman Justol, whose appointment was bypassed by the CA due to the lack of quorum after their appointment hearing was rescheduled twice. Justol was appointed by outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte earlier this June.

The appointment hearing, originally scheduled on May 25, was deferred initially because lawmakers from the Senate and the House of Representatives were canvassing votes for president and vice president.

During the proceedings held on May 30, Sen. Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri noted that “many” of his colleagues “feel that maybe it is or it should be the choice of the new president” to appoint officials in the constitutional offices of the COA, along with the Comelec and the Civil Service Commission.

READ: Keeping in mind a new administration, Commission on Appointments defers confirmation hearing yet again
 
Zubiri later admitted that the incoming Marcos administration requested that the CA bypass the appointment of officials chosen by the outgoing Duterte president. Officials chosen to lead as chairpersons of the COA, the Comelec, and the CSC are to serve a seven-year term.

Earlier, Calida also ordered Comelec to scrap its inked fact-checking agreement with online news site Rappler on voter engagement and fighting disinformation for the May 2022 elections and threatened to file suit.

During his term as chief lawyer, Calida defended the burial of late dictator and namesake of the president-elect, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. 

Calida also took the side of Marcos Jr. on the 25 percent threshold issue of the vice president vote recount. 

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