Senators on Thursday grilled the Commission on Elections (Comelec) about allocating funds for projects that were not authorized by Congress, which they said is a violation of the Philippine Constitution.
"There appears to be a gross violation of the Constitution by the Comelec," Senator Franklin Drilon, chair of the Senate finance committee, told reporters after the Senate hearing on the Comelec budget.
"Somebody can take this to the Ombudsman for technical malversation," he added.
He explained that the Comelec appropriated P3.5 billion of its savings for activities included in its five-year Comelec Strategic Plan 2011-2016, or ComStrat plan.
At Thursday's hearing, Comelec chief Sixto Brillantes Jr. explained that the activities in the plan were essential in fulfilling the mandate of the poll body.
Among these is the P2.335-billion allocation for a Comelec building. Drilon said the poll body even signed a memorandum of agreement with the Philippine Retirement Authority to purchase land worth P1.188 billion, P250 million of which has already been paid.
Drilon and Senate Minority Floor Leader Alan Peter Cayetano, however, asked Brillantes what the legal basis was for Comelec to appropriate its own savings.
"Did you have authority to use these savings to buy land and building? There is no authority whastoever under the 2012 [General Appropriations Act] for Comelec to purchase land for a building. That is the role of Congress," said Drilon.
Brillantes initially answered that they could do this because as a constitutional body, the Comelec has fiscal autonomy.
The senators, however, argued that the law only authorizes them to augment items in the GAA and not create and allocate for actual items.
Article VI Section 25 (5) states that:
"No law shall be passed authorizing any transfer of appropriations; however, the President, the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the heads of Constitutional Commissions may, by law, be authorized to augment any item in the general appropriations law for their respective offices from savings in other items of their respective appropriations."
"One thing is clear, you cannot augment something that is not there," said Cayetano.
Brillantes, for his part, said that all of their actions have always been "similar" to that of other Constitutional bodies like the Commission on Audit, Commission on Human Rights, Civil Service Commission, and the Office of the Ombudsman.
"We are always in consultation with each other [so] siguro kung mayroon ho kaming pagkakamali it's the mistake of the entire [group]," he said.
He likewise said that they have been "very frugal" in the use of their savings. "Hindi naman ho namin inaabuso yan," he said.
Drilon asked the Comelec to come back to the Senate when it can finally explain the issue. The next hearing has been set for September 13.
Cayetano, meanwhile, asked Brillantes to report on the status of the investigation and cases of the joint panel of the Comelec and Department of Justice.
"I'd like to see how far they're gone," he said, adding that he'd like Brillantes to explain his statement that he intentionally deferred from investigating the alleged cheating during the 2004 elections because of the ongoing Senate hearing.
"That is an illegal agreement and there is no such agreement," he said, although the Comelec chief maintained that he had talked to Senators Teofisto Guingona III and Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III about it. — BM, GMA News