EXPLAINER: COA has no specific finding of overprice in Cebu City's 2021 Covid spending. But it flags LGU 'violations' of rules and law on rice, packed meals. How would Sanggunian minority use COA report?

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CONTEXT. The Cebu City Council -- starting when Michael "Mike" Rama was still vice mayor, then acting mayor, mostly in 2021 -- had been pressing for an accounting of multi-billion pesos spent on the anti-Covid campaign. It didn't get what it wanted: not the detailed summary the Sanggunian minority, led by Councilor Nestor Archival Sr., had asked for.

Commission on Audit's (COA) report on 2021 transactions of the City is out. Does it say directly that there were cases of overprice or bloated cost? It does not. It cites though a number of alleged violations of rules on procurement and allocation of goods and supplies intended for pandemic victims.

Just as no councilor, from either of two camps, had explicitly accused the city administration of corruption, the 2021 COA report has not made any direct finding of fraud.

USING THE COA REPORT. The interest shown by the minority on Covid spending in 2021 must have spilled over to July 2022 when COA finally unwrapped its report. The public must wonder how it would make use of the said report in the minority's self-imposed job of fiscalizing city spending on anti-Covid response. In one Sanggunian session in 2021, the minority was advised: Wait for the COA report.

That report is out. Would the minority help pursue the officials responsible to account for the violations? Would it help see to it that the violations are not repeated, even during non-emergency times?

FLAGGED VIOLATIONS. In its Covid-19 audit (Section D of COA's observations on Cebu City in 2021), COA found, among others, these transactions and practices to be irregular:

[1] RICE PURCHASE. Buying 39,478 sacks of rice with the total cost of P90.799 million from an "ineligible supplier or middleman," one Markabi Distributors Philippines Inc. COA doubts it is a legitimate supplier. Thus the City, COA says, was not assured of getting advantageous price and other terms in the purchase.

[2] DISTRIBUTION OF RICE. Improper distribution of 28,407 sacks of rice costing P65.336 million, out of 39,478 sacks, wherein the supplier delivered directly to the barangays, without documents that show they were distributed to qualified or authorized recipients.

[3] RISK ALLOWANCES. A total of P5.137 million special risk allowances (SRA) were granted to non-public health workers, in violation of DBM-DOH circular. And checks were released to non-bonded personnel, as required by law.

[4] PACKED MEALS. Packed meals costing P96.770 million were delivered even before purchase requests (PRs) and purchase orders (P.O.s) were completed, making the transaction "irregular."

NOTHING ABOUT BLOATED PRICES. As can be seen, there's no allusion to padded pricing, on the sacks of rice or the packed meals, favorite targets of criticism from administration critics during the campaign leading to the 2022 May elections.

COA found only: wrong supplier, unqualified beneficiaries, improper or premature delivery, absence of documents, and the like. And COA has required explanations and supporting documents.

The suspicious councilors or doubting Juans in the city can't find from the COA report specific and direct accusation of corruption, just lapses in compliance with COA or DBM rules or some requirement of law.

LGU'S JUSTIFICATION. Comments from the audited LGU, to justify the mistakes and omissions, inevitably point to the pandemic, a popularly used excuse, some of which COA may accept as concession to the emergency.

On picking the prescribed supplier, the City said "we didn't have the luxury of time to look for suppliers because people were already clamoring for rice due to the hard lockdown."

On rice distribution, COA asks for documents, imposing a suspension (which can lead to disallowance) until the required papers and acceptable explanation are submitted.

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