In the Philippines, it's more fun to be a senator

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Ever wonder why many are dying to become senators?

Philippine Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago posed this question during an interview with Radyo Inquirer Wednesday after Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile reportedly played Santa Claus last Christmas, giving gifts using so-called "savings" that she said had become the "grandmama of all scandals."

She then proceeded to outline why nothing beats being a senator.

Imagine a yearly pork barrel of 200 million pesos (US$4.9 million), 2.2 million pesos monthly for staff salaries and office expenses, a 500,000 pesos annual travel allowance and an honorarium that ranges between 30,000 to 60,000 pesos a month as chair of a Senate committee.

And don't forget the regular monthly salary of 75,000 pesos.

An unscrupulous senator can simply make it appear that he or she is using all these perks legitimately and then pocket these. Here is where Santiago wants the Commission on Audit (COA) to come in.

Santiago asked COA Chairperson Ma. Gracia Pulido-Tan to instruct auditors assigned to the Senate and the House of Representatives to examine and audit so-called "savings" or "secret funds" available to the Senate President, House Speaker, and other heads of offices, to ensure transparency.

Santiago's revelations followed Enrile's supposedly selective release of a total of 1.618 million pesos in two tranches as additional "maintenance and other operating expenditures" (MOOE) to each of her 18 colleagues from "savings" of the chamber in 2012. Four other senators Enrile wasn't exactly fond of-Santiago included-got 250,000 pesos each.

Nat'l scandal

"The so-called savings of each public office have turned into a national scandal, the grandmama of all scandals. The Constitution allows savings to be used by the office at the end of the year. But in reality, the head of office manipulates the books and creates so-called savings by refusing to fill up vacancies, or refusing to buy essential office supplies or services, or capital equipment. These so-called 'enforced savings' are then distributed among the highest officials, in the guise of Christmas bonuses," Santiago explained.

In many cases, the COA auditor usually accommodates the "enforced savings" ordered by the head of office, because COA auditors are often afraid of politicians, or the COA auditors themselves share in the "enforced savings," she said.

"I challenge the COA to reveal to the public the total income annually of every senator and every representative. This total income should include basic salary, Christmas and other bonuses, monthly honoraria for committee work, monthly appropriation to be spent at the senator's discretion for staff salaries and for MOOE, appropriations for consultants, foreign travel funds, etc.," she said.

Members of each Senate committee are also given an allowance, but she did not give a specific amount.

"That's why some of my colleagues become members of so many committees," she noted. "This amount is given whether or not you attend the hearings conducted by the committee."

The same policy holds true for the 500,000 pesos travel allowance. "We are given that every year, whether we use it or not. It is for official trips such as those to international conferences. But even if you don't leave, you still get that," she said.

Biggest perk

The biggest perk, however, remains the 200 million pesos pork barrel, or the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).

Santiago recalled that when she was still a newbie senator in 1995, she was approached by a contractor who guaranteed her a "clean" 10-percent kickback from her pork-funded infrastructure projects.

She calculated that during a six-year term, a senator can earn 120 million pesos from kickbacks, enough to jumpstart a reelection bid.

"One who wants big money should run for senator," Santiago said.

As for Enrile's "gift," Santiago said she sent it back to the Senate President because he had returned her gift of biscuits to him.

"You don't like my biscuit, I also don't like your money," was how she explained it. With a report from Fe Zamora

*US$1=40.7 pesos

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