The Senate Committee on Finance on Monday deferred its approval of the Office of the Solicitor-General’s (OSG) proposed 2021 budget over the “questionable” allowances earned by Solicitor General Jose Calida and the agency’s travel and confidential funds.
Senator Francis Tolentino moved to postpone their deliberation of the P1.1-billion proposed budget of the OSG as he raised issues with Calida’s salaries and allowances as reported by the Commission on Audit (COA).
Tolentino cited a COA report finding that Calida is the second highest-paid government official in 2019, and even the highest-paid solicitor general in the country’s history.
“It came from the some COA reports. The former solicitor-general, specifically [former] Justice [Francis] Jardeleza, hindi nga nangalahati doon sa tinatanggap ni (did not even receive half of the wages received by) Solicitor General Calida,” Tolentino said.
“Bakit kaya nangyari ito at ano ang napadagdag (How did this happen and what was increased? Nag-increase ba ang budget (Did the budget increase)? Or are there allowances that is being distributed by the Office of the Solicitor General pursuant to your mandate? Eh, baka sa kanya lang napupunta (Maybe only gets the money)?” he added.
Calida was not present in the Senate’s hybrid hearing.
Senator Juan Edgardo Angara, finance committee chairman, said the Sol-Gen had sent a letter saying he was advised by his physician “to take a five-day rest”, thus his absence. Angara did not mention Calida’s reason in asking to be excused from the hearing.
Speaking for the OSG, Assistant Sol-Gen Henry Angeles said he was not fully aware about Calida’s allowances but said he believes that the top government lawyer was getting them from the client government agencies that the OSG serves, as existing laws have allowed.
Tolentino, however, said there was a “peculiarity” in the matter.
“There is a COA circular, I can place it on record, 85-25-E, which states that allowances should not exceed 50 percent of the annual salary and apaprently there is a disconnect here,” he said.
“COA has been asking you to not to raise that to more than 50 percent and apparently the Solicitor General has defied the COA memorandum or cicular. Can you explain that? Remember, Mr. Angeles, that COA is a constitutional body,” he stressed.
COA has been flagging Calida in the previous years for his allowances that exceed half of his salaries.
According to the latest COA report, Calida received in 2019 a salary of P2.91 million, monetary benefits worth P11.9 million, and over P1.1 million in allowances, bonuses and discretionary funds.
Angeles, however, said the COA findings have been the same for OSG even before Calida assumed his post and that they have since been appealing them before the state auditor.
Tolentino questioned Calida’s earnings as he bared receiving complaints from some OSG lawyers that only those favored by the Solicitor-General were given the allowances.
“Because some of your OSG lawyers are complaining, I won’t be mentioning the names, na pinipili lang daw ang nakakatanggap (that only a chosen few were receiving the allowances),” he told Angeles.
In response, Angeles explained that Calida, under the law, “is given leeway to choose which lawyers would be assigned to task forces and to specific client agencies.”
He also questioned the OSG’s participation in some fact-finding and preliminary investigations when its mandate, under its charter, is “limited to representing the government on the appellate level”.
Angeles agreed with the senator’s position, but said he is not aware of any preliminary investigation that the OSG, or Calida, has taken part in. “As I recall, we have not made any fact finding,” he said.
In 2019, the OSG represented the Philippine National Police’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group in the preliminary investigation of the sedition charges against opposition figures for the Bikoy videos that allegedly sought to destablize the Duterte administration.
Taking note of Angeles concession, Tolentino said there should be no reason to allocate funds for government expenditures for the OSG’s services in preliminary probes.
Travel, confidential funds
Tolentino also observed a “big jump” in the OSG’s travel fund for next year, which amounts to P21.499 million.
“And 87.75 percent [of this] is for foreign travels, eh, kasagsagan pa ho next year ng COVID-19, saan naman po tayo magfo-foreign travel (but we will still be at at the height of COVID-19, where will you even travel)? Hindi ko alam kung saan kayo magta-travel, hindi naman siguro sa Boracay (I do not know where will you wil travel at this time, for sure you will not go to Boracay),” he said.
Angeles said the travel funds where allocated by the DBM and they have already requested for its realignment for other purposes, including the improvement and maintenance of OSG building.
Tolentino said the OSG’s confidential funds also rose from P5 million this year to P20 million being proposed for next year.
“I don’t see any program on how national security and peace and order would fit in the OSG budget. So dito nagkakaroon tayo ng (this is where we are having a) disconnect,” he said, citing a DBM circular stating the confidential funds are solely for funding national secutiry and peace and order activities.
Like the travel expense funds, Angeles said they are asking Congress to reallocate it also for their building improvement.
In moving to defer the budget hearings on the OSG budget, the administration senator then asked the agency to submit a report detailing its utilization of the travel and confidential funds for the last three years.
“I move for the deferment of the OSG budget hearing today until such time that they can submit the required documents that would butress the claim that these are being utilized for the appropriate purpose, Mr. Chairman,” Tolentino asked his colleagues.
No senator opposed Tolentino’s move.
Angara then ruled: “We’ll ask the SolGen to comply. We’ll have to defer the budget in the meantime until they comply.”