Ombudsman wants COA to keep audit findings private

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
Ombudsman wants COA to keep audit findings private
President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday announced that he has appointed Martires—his first appointee to the Supreme Court—as the country’s new corruption buster, taking the position vacated by Conchita Carpio-Morales.
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines (Updated: 9/13/2023 2:50 p.m.)— Ombudsman Samuel Martires asked Congress on Monday to strike off budget provisions that require the publication of the annual audit reports on agencies’ spending to prevent the public from making premature judgments of possible corruption.

During the deliberations of the proposed P4.98-billion budget of the Office of the Ombudsman before the House appropriations panel, Martires appealed to remove the general provisions in the annual national budget on the publication of “audit observation memorandum,” which he said “causes confusion.”

The Office of the Ombudsman clarified in a later press release on Wednesday that Martires meant that it is the annual audit reports and not the audit observation memoranda that ought to be kept private. The statement also said that the Ombudsman is not protecting "erring corrupt officials" by pushing for only the final audit reports to be publicized.

“From the perspective of a person reading an audit observation memorandum about a P10 million project, they will believe that the person or government official behind it is profiting from the P10 million. But it turns out that a receipt was just not submitted on time,” Martires said in Filipino.

According to a 2013 COA circular, audit observations that are not resolved or adequately explained by the agency find their way to the Annual Audit Report, which are the documents uploaded on the COA website reviewing an agency’s use of funds for the year. 

Government agencies are required to share their yearly reports, audited financial statements, COA findings, and statements on their websites. They must also notify the budget department and Congress when these reports are posted. 

Martires made the request unprompted after explaining the bureaucratic delays that prolong the resolution of a complaint, with many cases being dismissed due to "inordinate delay.”

One of the delays Martires cited is when the Office of the Ombudsman waits for COA to investigate a case as part of their audit of an agency.  

“When a case is filed and the case is dismissed, the problem is it creates an innuendo that the ombudsman earned,” Martires added.

“I appeal to Congress to take a second look at this,” he added.

Martires said that compared to cases filed at the Department of Justice related to drugs or homicide, graft and corruption complaints naturally take longer due to the additional paperwork required.

“It’s easy to judge and say that we take two to five years. But compared to cases at the DOJ, whether related to drugs or homicide, you just need three to four documents and the rest is testimonial,” Martires said.

“But in violations of anti-graft and corruption, we try to look for documents such as from COA. What happens is they ask for an extension of time to give us a copy of the document,” he added.

No receipts for confidential funds 

During the briefing, Rep. France Castro (ACT Teachers) asked Martires to explain why the agency’s utilization of its confidential funds amounts to an average of 40% to 45% given the numerous complaints filed to the Ombudsman each year.

The Office of the Ombudsman received P5-million in confidential fund in 2022 and P31 million in 2023.

Castro asked Martires on whether the agency submits receipts of how it spends it confidential funds.

Martires, however, said that since being Ombudsman, he has never been asked to submit a receipt for the use of intelligence funds.

“How will I submit a receipt for an intelligence officer that I will ask to look or investigate a case? What receipt do I put there?” he added.

Martires also quipped that if an agency is required to submit a receipt, “that is no longer considered a confidential fund.”

“If I get a safe house, you will wonder why I got a safe house. You might think it’s a motel. In that case, if we will just argue about confidential funds, just remove it from our budget. I can continue investigating cases by smiling at my friends at ESAF and other investigation agencies,” Martires added.

Castro, however, said that there is nothing funny about the non-submission of receipts for the lump sum, and said that the office must adhere to the transparency rules mandated by a 2015 joint memorandum circular that governed the use of confidential and intelligence funds.

“There can be a confidential fund, but it has to have proper liquidation. To remind the Ombudsman, we should observe due diligence in the use of confidential funds,” Castro added.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the Office of the Ombudsman's statement published Wednesday clarifying that Martires meant to say "annual audit reports" and not the audit observation memorandum.

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