Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - "It's time to call a spade a spade," Philippine Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said yesterday in response to an Inquirer report in which a colleague described as "unconscionable and unconstitutional" his decision to grant last Christmas 1.6 million pesos (US$39,200) in additional maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE) to each of 18 senators.
Four senators with whom Enrile does not see eye to eye on matters both professional and personal each received only 250,000 pesos.
Enrile invoked the exercise of his sole discretion in his refusal to give 1.6 million pesos to the four senators-Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano, his sister Pia, and Senators Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Antonio Trillanes IV.
The senate president said what he gave to his colleagues was not bribe money.
"Those senators who think that I am bribing anyone with additional budgets in order to keep my post as senate president must have a very low opinion of their own colleagues," Enrile said.
He said he was elected senate president twice and could look at anyone straight in the eye in saying that "I did not buy this position. Not one single centavo of the people's money is spent just to enable me to cling to this office."
The senator, who disclosed the unequal Christmas cash "gifts" from Enrile and asked not to be named, said the 1.6 million pesos could be interpreted as a bribe to prevent a Senate reorganisation when Congress resumes its sessions on January 21.
In a press statement, Enrile explained that the Cayetanos, Santiago and Trillanes were not totally left out of the picture when the additional MOOE was given to senators.
Enrile said the four received the first installment of 600,000 pesos in additional MOOE that was released by the Senate budget office in November 2012.
The confusion apparently began when Enrile instructed his chief of staff, Jessica "Gigi" Reyes, to exclude him and the four senators "in the succeeding releases of any further additional MOOE."
This meant the four senators did not receive the second installment of 1.3 million pesos and the final installment of 318,000 pesos-amounts that Enrile said were released before the Christmas break.
Enrile said a request by the Senate budget office made him approve "the use of the amounts that I waived and those that I did not authorise to be released to the four senators to be used by the Senate for its other expenditures. This is all on record".
Enrile wondered why the issuance of additional MOOEs suddenly became an issue. He said he had been giving the MOOEs to senators since he was chosen senate president in 2008.
These included the 1 million pesos for each senator in 2008 as a second tranche to the 500,000 pesos earlier released by then Senate President Manuel Villar; 1 million pesos each in 2009; two tranches-1.316 million pesos and 318,000 pesos-in 2010; and three tranches-500,000 pesos, 1.3 million pesos and 318,000 pesos in 2011.
"All the senators, including those now complaining or calling it 'unconscionable' and 'unconstitutional' received these amounts. Yet they never said anything nor questioned it before," Enrile said.
It was Santiago who clarified in an interview with Radyo Inquirer Wednesday that the 250,000 pesos in cash gift that Enrile gave to all senators for Christmas was different from the 1.6 million pesos given to each of the 18 senators.
They were Senate President Pro Tempore Jose "Jinggoy" Estrada, Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto, Panfilo Lacson, Manuel Villar, Joker Arroyo, Edgardo Angara, Franklin Drilon, Loren Legarda, Francis Escudero, Sergio Osmena III, Teofisto Guingona III, Manuel "Lito" Lapid, Ramon Revilla Jr., Francis Pangilinan, Gregorio Honasan, Aquilino Pimentel III, Ralph Recto and Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Santiago said this meant that the 18 got "nearly 2 million pesos each as Christmas gift".
In her case, Santiago said she ordered her staff to return the 250,000 pesos that the Office of the Senate President's staff described as "JPE's (Enrile's initials) personal cash gift" on January 4.
"He returned my biscuits, so I returned his cash," Santiago explained, referring to the baked goodies from Panaderia de Molo of Iloilo that she gave to Enrile for Christmas.
She said her staff automatically deposited the check but when she learned about it, she promptly ordered the money returned to Enrile.
The senate president confirmed he sent back the biscuits and cited his strained relations with Santiago as the reason for returning them.
Enrile said he learned that Santiago gave back the 250,000 pesos on Monday.
"I was told that Senator Santiago sent me back a check for the same amount of 250,000 pesos with a letter from her chief of staff explaining that the check I gave was inadvertently deposited. So Senator Santiago gave back my gift, as I gave back hers. Fair enough," he said.
Issue: Unequal amounts
Former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr. told the Inquirer that there was nothing irregular in Enrile's issuance of additional MOOE.
"But honestly speaking, while (Enrile) has the discretion (to issue additional MOOE), it's obvious that the issue at hand is why senators were given unequal amounts. So a disgruntled senator approached media," Pimentel said in a phone interview.
Estrada and Lacson were the first to confirm publicly Wednesday that they received the additional MOOE from the Office of the Senate President.
Both, however, insisted that Enrile had the authority to realign unspent funds and convert these to MOOE.
Estrada said his office was using this type of fund from the Senate President's office "to aid calamity victims" such as those from a recent fire in his bailiwick, San Juan City, and Typhoon "Pablo" victims in Compostela Valley.
Lacson said in a text message that "all the monies are with my finance officer and are (being) disbursed for their intended purposes".
Sotto sounded upset when asked in a text message for a statement on the accusations against Enrile. "They can become Senate President so they can do what they want to do," he said.
Enrile came under fire for alleged selectivity in the distribution of "cash gifts" to fellow senators. There are speculations that the four senators were singled out because at one point, they stood their ground during disagreements with the senate president.
Pia and Santiago, for example, were very assertive in their defence of the controversial reproductive health (RH) bill during Senate deliberations despite the strong opposition to the measure by Enrile and some of his allies.
Trillanes and Enrile had heated exchanges last September after the younger senator criticised the unwarranted pressure that the latter allegedly exerted on colleagues to ensure they would favour the approval of a bill creating a new province out of Camarines Sur.
Minority Leader Cayetano's objections to some rulings issued by Enrile during the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona also did not sit well with the Senate President who was the presiding officer.
"I stand by the exercise of my sole discretion not to authorise any further releases of additional MOOE last December to the (four) senators....It is time to call a spade a spade," he said.
Enrile noted that while Trillanes and the Cayetanos "are supposedly members of the minority in the Senate", they chair committees that allow them to receive allowances.
Enrile said Trillanes, "despite his move to the minority" after their very public spat, "has retained the chairmanship of the civil service committee and of the oversight committee on government procurement with a budget of 10 million pesos annually, which was just recently increased to 15 million pesos".
Cayetano, the minority leader, Enrile noted, "being an officer of the Senate, has a bigger budget than the other senators. He also has a budget as a member of the Commission on Appointments, the chairmanship of the E-Commerce Oversight Committee with an annual budget of 6 million pesos, and now a new oversight committee chairmanship (Bases Conversion Development Authority), which he requested to be created with an annual budget of 10 million pesos."
Pia chairs the Senate health committee as well as the committee on youth, women and family relations-a position that put her at the helm of the RH debates since the measure was examined and sponsored by this panel.
"Plus the Clean Water Act oversight committee with an annual budget of 10 million pesos," Enrile said in pointing out Pia's third assignment.
"On the other hand, Senator Santiago's supposed membership in the majority is questionable, to say the least, as she has publicly and repeatedly denounced and attacked me, just like Senator Trillanes. She does not consider me a friend and I do not think she considers me the head of the Senate and that is fine with me," Enrile said.
"Yet, masquerading as a member of the majority, Senator Santiago continues to hold the chairmanship of the committee on constitutional amendments plus two oversight committees with annual budgets of 15 million pesos and 10 million pesos," he added.
Enrile also noted that Arroyo, the fourth member of the Senate minority bloc, "who really and actually acts as a (minority) member ... doing his job at fiscalising even more than the minority leader. (Arroyo) declined to chair any committee, regular or oversight, so unlike the Cayetano siblings".
Enrile said he remained confident he could explain how the Senate budget was spent despite efforts of some to stir controversy.
In response to the issues raised by the anonymous senator, Enrile said while the Senate seat vacated by President Benigno Aquino in 2010 was a source of additional funds for the Senate, the budget for that seat was not the only source of the Senate's savings.
Earlier reports said funds meant for Aquino's remaining three years as senator were considered savings that were eventually realigned for other Senate expenditures.
"As agreed in the past with all the senators, the savings from the vacant seat may be used for the other expenditures and requirements of the Senate, including the augmentation of the budgets of the senators serving their terms," Enrile explained.
Employees' bonus package
He added that "toward the end of each year and before the holidays, the Senate Secretariat and the Senate's budget office (determine) how much savings we have generated and how to allocate available savings, including the Christmas package for the Senate employees, what is due under the collective negotiation agreement with the employees union (S.E.N.A.D.O.), and what may be available for distribution as additional MOOE to the senators' offices."
Enrile said since he became Senate President in November 2008, he had prioritised the needs of employees before exercising his discretion to use the remaining available savings.
"The only thing I find humourous about this whole controversy is that I am being accused of 'giving,' albeit generously to most, but not as generously to a few ...(four) to be exact," he said.