There was no letup in the House campaign to press Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno to resign
Thursday over the insertion of P75 billion in the 2019 national spending plan, but some senators defended the embattled Cabinet member.
House Majority Leader and Camarines Sur Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr. said the committee on rules would hold a hearing on the alleged budget anomalies and questionable allocations by Diokno on Jan. 3, 2019 in Naga City.
He said his committee will subpoena, among others, the regional director of the Department of Public Works and Highways, two district engineers of Sorsogon City and the district engineer of Catanduanes.
Andaya said the House also extended invitations to heads of the DPWH bids and awards committee, active and recently retired, who handled the projects of alleged favored contractor C.T. Leoncio Construction and Trading, a proprietorship owned by Consolacion Leoncio.
On a later date, the committee would also summon Diokno to shed light on questions related to the 2019 budget.
“I am particularly interested in knowing the total amount of payables that the DBM owe to contractors and suppliers this year. During the Question Hour, he [Diokno] disclosed that these payables run to billions of pesos. The government owes contractors and suppliers P100 billion, and this will not be paid this year. This was not disputed by Secretary Diokno during Question Hour,” Andaya said in a mix of Filipino and English.
“The DPWH [Department of Public Works and Highways] undersecretary for planning, Ma. Catalina Cabral has confirmed to Congress that for DPWH alone, the payables have reached P44 billion. And until now, this has not been paid,” Andaya added.
Given this, he questioned the insertion of P75 billion, which Diokno defended as “part of the budget process.”
“The billion-dollar question: Why then did Secretary Diokno insisted on inserting an additional P75 billion in the DPWH infrastructure projects for 2019 when the DBM has no money to pay for P100 billion [in debt to contractors and suppliers]?” Andaya said.
“If the DBM cannot pay the P100 billion in debt, this is mismanagement,” he continued. “It is clear that there was neglect on the part of Secretary Diokno. It is clear he must answer for it. Unless he clears himself of this mess, there will be perpetual doubt that the people’s taxes are not safe under his stewardship.”
Andaya earlier said C.T. Leoncio Construction and Trading cornered huge projects in supposed connivance with some DBM officials.
He accused Diokno of betraying President Rodrigo Duterte
by manipulating the budget process and allowing the P75 billion in insertions.
Andaya said that Diokno admitted that husband and wife, Casiguran Mayor Edwin Hamor and Sorsogon Vice Governor Ester Hamor, were his in-laws, but claimed he did not know they would be running in 2019.
“Ester Hamor is running for mayor of Sorsogon City, while Edwin Hamor will run for reelection for mayor of Casiguran, Sorsogon. He claims his daughter did not tell him about this,” Andaya said.
Diokno’s daughter Charlotte Justine is married to Romeo Sicat Jr., the son of Esther Hamor from her first marriage to a certain Gerardo Sicat.
The Hamors, according to sources, are very close to the sole contractor C.T. Leoncio Construction and Trading.
Opposition lawmakers led by Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said the President may have known about the P75 billion in insertions.
“If the facts and figures are admitted by no less than Secretary Diokno, then we should be able to rely on his admission that there is a P75-billion additional amount. But I don’t think that Secretary Diokno will do this on his own. I think he has the permission, the consent, and prior knowledge of the executive, more particularly the President,” Lagman told reporters at a news conference.
Lagman also said he has a “strong possibility” that other government officials are behind the allegations against Diokno.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III, however, spoke out on Diokno’s behalf.
“Ben Diokno has been doing a good job and has never been known to indulge in any illegal actions as far as the government budget is concerned,” Sotto said.
He added that if there were a problem with the P75 billion, all they had to do was cut it from the budget.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said he had no comment on the House resolution but said the Senate had no problems dealing with Diokno.
“We are not fully aware of House allegations at this time. We are still studying the budget and its attendant issues,” Recto added.
Senator Loren Legarda said Diokno was a man of integrity and his competence was unquestionable.
Senator Panfilo Lacson described as “too harsh and unfair” the call of the House of Representatives for Diokno to resign
He said the accusations against Diokno were speculative and not supported by solid evidence.
Instead of getting Diokno fired, he said, Congress should first conduct an investigation.
“We may be barely scratching the surface of anomalies involved, not only in unwarranted realignments by both House and Senate members but in the preparation of the NEP [National Expenditures Program],” he said.
At the same time, Lacson urged Malacañang to reject an expected request by Diokno for a special session on the 2019 budget as Congress goes on Christmas break on Thursday.
Diokno earlier said he would recommend to the President to call for a special session to approve the budget within the year.
But Lacson said even with a special session, there was no time to pass the budget before the year ends.
Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said the Senate tried its best but said it would be “physically impossible” to approve the budget this year.
Even if the President calls for a special session, it would be doubtful that Congress could get a quorum, Zubiri added.
Also on Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said that while the Department of Health will take a huge cut in its budget in 2019, some P16.18 billion was “mysteriously” buried in the proposed P3.575-trillion national budget, supposedly to help local government units.
What’s more, he said, the principal agency tasked to assist LGUs, the Department of the Interior and Local Government disowned the fund, claiming it had no knowledge of how the funds would be used.
Drilon said the DILG’s admission that it is not aware that there are P16-billion funds earmarked for LGU assistance only reinforces doubts about the budget.
He said the money would be best used to augment the budget of the Health Department to enable the agency to equip around 900 health facilities and finish the construction of 300 more.
“If the DILG had nothing to do with this item, we will move that we give it to the Department of Health, because, certainly, our 900 rural health units should have the highest priority in the budget,” Drilon said.
READ: House tells Diokno: Resign