When public money is spent confidentially

In photo, Vice President Sara Duterte is shown leading the release of 152 hatchlings of the endangered hawksbill turtle in Davao City on Sept. 12. —PNA PHOTO

The Office of Vice President Sara Duterte has denied her involvement in the recent disruption of traffic on Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City purportedly to allow her convoy to pass unhampered. By then the video showing all sorts of vehicles at full stop on the busy avenue had, in the common parlance, gone viral, accompanied by public comments expressing anger and disgust at the supposed subject’s sense of entitlement. The reactions were hardly surprising considering occasions of high officials or even petty personages allowed priority passage on the streets, leaving lowly motorists and riders to eat their dust.

But the online snark was particularly vivid, likely due to continuing revelations concerning the P125 million in confidential funds received and spent in December 2022 by Duterte in her concurrent capacities as vice president and education secretary, as well as her request for more such allocations in the 2024 national budget. The amounts as reported are breathtaking on their face, and made even more so vis-a-vis the reported reduced allocations for, among others, the Department of Health including the Philippine General Hospital, and state universities and colleges including the University of the Philippines.

Confidential funds are spent by a civilian government agency on its surveillance activities conducted in support of its mandate.

See: What to Know: Are confidential funds secret funds not subject to audit?

The money is spent in private, as it were, although still with certain regulations. It should go without saying that the allocation and expenditure of such funds as included in an agency’s budget require extensive discussions and inspections to preclude corruption—even if, as has been said, the Philippines is a rich country pretending to be poor. Which agencies are, by their very nature, in need of such funds in their respective budgets?

But early on, the House of Representatives’ deliberations on the proposed budgets of the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and the Department of Education (DepEd) for 2024 were nipped in the bud—supposedly as a traditional courtesy, the implication being that questions posed by members of the chamber that wields the power of the purse could inconvenience, even embarrass, the Vice President.

Thus did Duterte’s proposed P2.39-billion budget for next year, including P500 million and P150 million in confidential funds for the OVP and the DepEd, respectively, sail quickly through the House appropriations committee, on a motion by the young Ilocos Norte Rep. Sandro Marcos, which the committee favorably voted on. Dissenting House members, notably the Makabayan bloc, were metaphorically shouted down—their mic was switched off, and repeatedly in the succeeding days—the tyranny of numbers being the way it is.

Blasts from the past

But currently, Madame Vice President is being inconvenienced by blasts from the past. There is her receipt and spending in 2022 of P125 million in confidential funds in 11 (and not in the earlier reported 19) days, even if there was no line item for it in that year’s national budget. There are also the confidential funds amounting to P2.697 billion spent when she was mayor of Davao City, the family bailiwick, in 2016-2022.

Imagine those fantastic amounts whizzing around the people’s heads, with the prices of rice and other staples, petroleum products included (despite cutbacks in two consecutive weeks) shooting through the roof. People like the sari-sari store owners stung by the (just lifted) price ceiling on rice and yet to receive the promised subsidy. Jeepney drivers still awaiting the fuel subsidy. The “nouveau poor” aghast at the paltry contents of the grocery cart they trundle to the cashier. Public school teachers trying to make do with wages tremendously unequal to the responsibility they hold, and being tagged Red if they speak up. Etc.

And yet, incredibly, the Vice President declares those who seek an accounting of her use of confidential funds as public enemies who ignore the “security threats” to peace and order that her confidential expenditures are supposedly addressing. She tells those with “insidious motivations” to lay off and realize the supposed folly of their ways. She warns them in strong Filipino to “… [R]emember: Whoever opposes confidential funds is opposed to peace. Whoever is opposed to peace is an enemy of the people.”

Perhaps she does not see how she is being badly served by her advisers and her comms team—those who write her speeches and compose her statements for public release, and who should be constantly protecting the image she, by her words, presents? (The double-digit drop in her approval and trust ratings, like President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s, should be cause for concern.)

Last week in connection with the statement of ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro that the confidential funds spent by the Davao City mayor would mean an average of P1.235 million spent daily for six years, and that the Commission on Audit “should thoroughly examine” if the money was indeed used the way it should have, the Vice President was reported as saying in a Viber message: “The official statement: No comment as of the moment.”

That non-comment would have been par for the course but, inexplicably, it was prefaced by:“I’m currently eating peanuts while watching and listening to France Castro and all those supporting her.” Surely this and earlier reported messages—such as that she found the questioning of her confidential funds by the House’s Makabayan bloc and Sen. Risa Hontiveros “amusing”—are unnecessarily flippant and ultimately unhelpful.

‘Small committee’

The “small committee” in the House engaged in deliberating on amendments to House Bill No. 8980 or the 2024 General Appropriations Bill is expected to announce the results of its work this week. The loudest buzz is that the requested confidential funds of the OVP and the DepEd, along with other civilian agencies that are not mandated to engage in surveillance or intelligence-gathering, will be realigned to agencies that need the money most—agencies such as the Philippine Coast Guard that is now called upon to take the lead in countering China’s blatant expansionism in the West Philippine Sea, after the past administration’s willful indifference to it.

The cynical will believe it when they see it.

Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo, a member of the small committee and the senior vice chair of the committee on appropriations, had appeared as a champion of the Vice President’s confidential funds, claiming that the 2022 transfer of the money to the OVP from the Office of the President was lawful, until she was taken down a notch or two by Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman and others. (Her interview early last month on ANC was memorable for her insistence, in her distinctive cracked voice, that such fund transfers had been done “many, many, many times.”) She has since called for the formation of an oversight body that would ensure transparency in the use of confidential and intelligence funds.

This early, the political landscape is gripped with what look like preparations for the next national elections. Sen. Bato dela Rosa, in defending the confidential funds of “Inday Sara,” has connected her critics’ actions to her supposed coming candidacy. By some miracle leaders of the House power blocs have agreed to the realignment of the secret funds; even if he did not sign their resolution, Speaker Martin Romualdez, lately hugely visible even in visits to remote Pag-Asa Island, has gone on record as citing the wisdom of the move. Even Quimbo, a perceived member of the opposition up until she entered the Speaker’s power circle, is contemplating a run for a mayor’s post, per Rappler’s Dwight de Leon.

Perhaps the realignment of confidential and intelligence funds will be done with an eye to the next national elections? Fine. Meanwhile, the Philippines’ outstanding debt stood at P14.35 trillion as of end-August.

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