Auditing the Commission on Audit

The Office of the Ombudsman recently ordered the dismissal from government service of six state auditors of the Commission on Audit who, from 2006 to 2010, unlawfully accepted millions of pesos in bonuses from the Local Water Utilities Administration. Former LWUA officials themselves have been charged under the antigraft law with granting scandalously excessive bonuses to themselves and the employees of this state agency during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

The Ombudsman’s action brings to the fore an administrative reality that has long been whispered about but has rarely been addressed in as resolute a way as this. I am referring to the collusion between COA personnel and the state agencies and offices they are supposed to audit. I am aware that it would not be fair to conclude that these six dismissed auditors are the face of an ineradicable culture of corruption in government. For there have also been many instances when honest auditors who do their work diligently are summarily replaced and transferred for the flimsiest of reasons at the request of powerful heads of agencies.

The role of state auditors in a society like ours, where great disparities in power and benefits exist in the government system, is indeed a very complex one.

The Constitution gives to constitutional commissions like the COA ample autonomy and authority to enable them to properly discharge their crucial functions. But, the challenge has always been how to ensure that the personnel of these independent bodies could keep their dealings with the offices they are watching at arm’s length.

This is particularly true for COA resident auditors who hold offices within the premises of the agencies they are assigned to audit. In most instances, they quickly become part of the informal culture of the agency—its daily routines and celebrations, and its interpersonal dynamics. In these agencies, government units, or state corporations, government auditors are given offices in which they can do their work. But the amenities they get to enjoy vary depending on the resources of the host agency.

Some auditors, feeling entitled to better treatment, may sometimes find the equipment inadequate, and start hinting about their need for new computers or furniture, a small fridge, or a coffeemaker. To win their good graces, they may be invited to join office outings disguised as “seminars,” and, as in the case of the LWUA, included in the list of recipients of bonuses and other allowances. Before long, they lose their objectivity and regulatory perspective, becoming instead in-house consultants on how to exploit gaps in the law and sidestep auditing rules.

Of course, the game may be played the other way around. Auditors typically vie for assignment to agencies that are known to hand out generous perks to their officials and employees, hoping to get a share of these benefits. When their expectations are not met, they could turn into resentful bureaucrats who question every item of expenditure and are quick to issue notices of disallowance.

In its order dismissing the six COA officials, the Office of the Ombudsman said: “Their patent disregard of the existing policy of their own institution against the practice of receiving additional compensation cannot be deemed a mere lapse of judgment.” Indeed, there is such a policy. But it is also true that there are enough gray areas in the law that permit greater latitude in the relationship between auditor and audited. The culture that has evolved in this context is worth studying because it may offer valuable clues on the structural roots of corruption in our society.

I have a hunch that the practice of showering auditors with benefits is far more widespread than we think. The magnitude of the scam involving the so-called Priority Development Assistance Fund and the length of time it was able to operate undisturbed (at least 10 years in the case of Janet Lim Napoles’ racket) begs the question of how this incredible scheme could have passed the scrutiny of state auditors.

Clearly, the COA’s people opted to turn a blind eye to the multiple violations in the use of the PDAF because either they themselves were being paid for their acquiescence, or there were sacred cows in Congress whom they could not afford to displease. In all likelihood, it was both. To be fair, it has to be mentioned that the COA central office did conduct a quiet inquiry into the use of the pork barrel funds of some legislators even before the Inquirer ran its exposé of the scandal. But it is doubtful if the COA would have been bold enough to publicize its adverse findings against some senators if there had not been a massive uproar over the use of these funds.

The reason for this is simple enough. All government agencies must face members of Congress annually to defend their budgets. Legislators are known to raise the most irrelevant but potentially embarrassing issues to delay approval of an agency’s budget. Thus, extreme care is always taken not to antagonize any lawmaker. The COA is no exception. Even as it enjoys fiscal autonomy, it, too, must get its budget approved by Congress. More often than not, it is this spirit of mutual accommodation that keeps the relations between the bureaucracy and the political branches humming.

Constitutional commissions, too, typically defer to each other’s good judgment when it comes to issues involving their agencies. One can thus only marvel at Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales’ determination to root out and punish corruption in every branch and level of government regardless of who gets hurt. She must know she has nothing to fear or hide from the COA.

* * *