Duterte assures those stealing coronavirus relief funds will ‘go to prison’

Insisting the government's coronavirus budget is not a "blank check," President Duterte has vowed to take responsibility for the accounting of all public funds spent in the fight against the pandemic.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte holds a meeting with the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) core members at the Matina Enclaves in Davao City on August 24, 2020. (SIMEON CELI JR. / PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO / MANILA BULLETIN)

The President, in a televised address Tuesday, said he intends to impose stricter measures to ensure public funds are used "wisely and correctly," run after anyone involved in corruption, and retrieve any stolen funds.

"Gusto kong ipaalam sa lahat that as upon my oath of office huwag kayong mag-alala lahat ng pera diyan nagastos dito sa away ng COVID ay maa-account. (I want to information everyone that as upon my oath of office, do not worry. All funds spent in the COVID fight will be fully accounted for). I will hold myself responsible for this sole and solemn duty of answering for and in behalf of the executive department of all the funds that were spent in the fight against COVID,” the President said.

"Gumagastos pa tayo, hindi pa tayo tapos (We are still spending, we are not through). Allow us time to do our thing, spend the money and there will always be a time for reckoning and that will be the time when we account for the money that we have used in the fight against COVID," he added.

Duterte also warned that any person pocketing or misusing the COVID funds would "go to prison." He said he is even willing to endorse cases against corrupt officials.

"Huwag kayong mag-alala kasi ‘yung may kulang o nagkulang kukunin natin balik sa kanila o hindi I assure you I will be the one to endorse the case to the prosecuting office. Ako ang magpirma mismo (Do not worry because if there is money missing, we will get it back from them. If not, I assure you I will be the one to endorse the case to the prosecuting office. I will even sign it)," he said.

"If we are through with the investigation, allow the Secretary of Justice to complete his investigation and his signature on the endorsement will be accompanied by my signature and that will ensure na ang mga pera ma --- makita ninyo paano ginastos (you can see how the funds are spent)," he added.

To start the accounting of COVID funds, the President has ordered the National Task Force for COVID-19 to properly report on how all the funds were spent and their intended purpose.  

He maintained that the COVID budget is "not a blank check because that is not allowed.” "Huwag kayong mag-alala, ikukuwenta namin ‘yung pera lahat (Do not worry, we will account for all the money)," he said.

Duterte also said he trusts Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and other former military men involved the task force are "a bunch of honest" persons.

But he still committed to take "stricter measures," including allowing the inclusion of the "finance guys" in the task forces to check the disbursement of the Bayanihan funds. Government agencies have also been directed by the President to publish their procurement plans, including the names and addresses of bidders, in the major newspapers for transparency.

"Itong nagnakaw ng pera ng bayan lalo na ‘yung sa COVID, they will go to prison. I am sure," he said.

The Department of Budget and Management recently reported that the government has released P376.57 billion to government agencies for their COVID-related programs. As of August 10, the DBM said the funds have been sourced from pooled savings from discontinued programs, activities and projects,  special purpose funds, and regular budget of agencies.

The bulk of the funds went to Department of Social and Welfare Development with P200.97 billion. The department handles the
implementation of emergency subsidy program for low income families to cope with the pandemic.

The Department of Finance received the second biggest allocation with P88.13 billion, followed by the Department of Health with P48.9 billion and the Department of Labor and Employment with P12.58 billion.