Appropriations panel subpoenas embattled Diokno 

Published February 6, 2019, 2:11 PM

by Patrick Garcia

By Ellson Quismorio and Ben Rosario

The House of Appropriations has moved for the issuance of a subpoena against Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Secretary Benjamin Diokno, who on Wednesday snubbed for the fifth time the Chamber’s invite for a public hearing.

Appropriations chairman, Camarines Sur (1st district) Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr. carried the motion to subpoena Diokno, which was made by Leyte 3rd district Rep. Vicente Veloso during the resumption of the hearing on the multi-billion peso “budget insertion” mess.

Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno (KEVIN ESPIRITU / MANILA BULLETIN)
Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno

“For the fifth time – I will not even bother to read his excuse letter – he has snubbed our hearing. I don’t know where he gets that very thick, facial facade,” an obviously irked Andaya said of Diokno.

“If there’s anything that the President (Rodrigo Duterte) should be dismayed about, it’s the performance of his supposed poster boy for integrity. He should talk to him,” he added.

Diokno is being accused of allegedly inserting P75 billion worth of “flood mitigation projects” in the Bicol region under the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) in the proposed 2019 national budget. He allegedly had a similar insertion worth P54 billion under the 2018 budget.

A subpoena is the strongest summon that the Chamber can issue against a person. House Speaker and former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has yet to sign the subpoena against Diokno as of press time.

Last week, Diokno was slapped with a show-cause order by the same panel asking him to explain why he shouldn’t be held in contempt for his repeated no-show in House hearings. It was Leyte (3rd district) Rep. Vicente Veloso who moved for the issuance of the show-cause order.

“It behooves the Secretary to explain why he should not be cited for contempt for repeatedly snubbing our proceedings,” Veloso told the panel before moving for the issuance of a subpoena, which was quickly seconded.

Andaya, who eventually read out Diokno’s letter upon the prodding of his colleague from Leyte, rebutted the Cabinet secretary’s claim that he had already satisfactorily answered the congressmen’s queries regarding the controversial budget insertions.

“My appearance during the question hour last December showed my utmost respect to the institution wherein I sufficiently answered all the issues…then raised by the members of the House of Representatives,” Andaya read the letter.

“I know you’re listening Mr. Diokno,” Andaya said afterward. “Just to remind you, the documents you promised us on that particular question hour never arrived. So you never satisfactorily answered anything, or you substantiated anything you said.”

Diokno said in his letter that he could not attend the House proceedings for lack of a “direct order to appear.”

“What direct order is he talking about?” Andaya said sarcastically.

The Appropriations Committee will hold another hearing on Friday.

Savings not pork

Meanwhile, Diokno said the P370 billion generated in fiscal year 2017 were “savings” and were reverted to the Bureau of the Treasury.

They are “savings,” not “pork,” Diokno said following the accusation of Andaya that the Duterte administration generated billions of pesos worth of discretionary funds.

“It is not true that the DBM [Department of Budget and Management] can utilize these funds as the President’s Veto Message in Fiscal Year 2017 states that, in general, funds must be obligated not later than December 31, 2017,” Diokno said.

The President in his Veto Message in Fiscal Year 2017 said, “I am placing Section 60, General Provisions, ‘Availability of Appropriations’, Volume I-B, pages 646-647 under conditional implementation and hereby direct all agency heads to ensure obligation of all programs, activities, and projects funded under this Act [2017 General Appropriations Act] not later than December 31, 2017.”

According to Diokno, the P370 billion was computed by deducting from P388.4 billion in unreleased appropriations and unobligated allotments some P18.3 billion appropriations which were extended for 2018.

The bulk of these extended appropriations were for Constitutional Offices with fiscal autonomy, while the unreleased appropriations and unobligated allotments comprised unused appropriations, he added.

“Granted the computation of the P370 billion balance, I reiterate that such funds may no longer be used as they have been reverted to the Treasury,” Diokno said. “There is no such thing as DBM pork as the DBM follows pertinent provisions and laws in the use of funds and declaration of savings.”

Line veto

Andaya said he supports the call of Sen. Panfilo Lacson for President Duterte to use his line item veto power to remove so-called pork barrel insertions in the proposed General Appropriations Act of 2019.

Insertions came in the form of re-alignment of funds, with the Lower House accounting for P51 billion and the Senate, P190 billion.

Andaya, however warned the line-veto will be questioned before the Supreme Court,  if it will not include the P75 billion insertion made by Diokno.

Andaya said Diokno’s failure to fully explain the P75 billion insertion he made in the proposed budget of the DPWH makes such fund a candidate for veto.

He also accused Diokno’s office of involvement in various other issues that included the flood control scam, the P81-million bank deposits to Aremar Construction, the anomalous bidding of big-ticket projects by the DBM-Procurement Service, the P50-billion stagnant funds in DBM-PS and PITC, and now the multi-billion 2017 and 2018 savings that serve as DBM’s pork barrel.

“A veto message prepared by Sec. Diokno will surely perpetuate these unanswered issues, unfortunately with the President as unwitting victim. The House panel will elevate the veto message to the Supreme Court to clarify, not to defy, the veto message,” he said.

“Likewise, we will seek to intervene in the exemption being sought by the DBM from the Comelec on the infrastructure ban. We need to be informed what types of projects are to be exempted from the election ban and the sourcing of funds for these projects,” said Andaya.

The administration lawmaker said Diokno’s failure to fully cooperate with Congress in determining the truth behind the fund irregularities “will render all the work done by the Bicameral Committee useless.” (with a report from Chino S. Leyco)