Philippine senators got cash gifts for Christmas

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Philippine Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile played Santa Claus last Christmas, making a list and checking it twice as he gave gifts to Senate members and personnel apparently on the basis of who were "naughty" or "nice".

Enrile gave 22 senators a total of almost 30 million pesos (US$734,200), a gift that one senator said was "unconscionable and unconstitutional".

The cash gift allegedly came from the funds allotted for the Senate post vacated by President Benigno Aquino III when he won the presidential election in 2010.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer yesterday tried to set an interview with Enrile in connection with the cash gift but he was not immediately available. A member of his staff said Enrile was on his way out of town and could no longer be reached for comment.

The various senators the Inquirer talked to agreed that the 1.6 million pesos bonanza for each of the 18 senators was the biggest yet. Enrile has been senate president since November 2008.

The senators could not remember the amounts distributed in Christmases past but the highest one recalled that it was close to 1 million pesos.

Enrile possibly made all Senate employees happy, since according to the Inquirer sources-"everyone, including the drivers and the security personnel"-benefited from bigger bonuses last Christmas, amounting to up to 120,000 pesos each. Some of them said the amount varied from the previous 55,000 to 80,000 pesos.

The Christmas gifts, billed as "additional MOOE" or maintenance and other operating expenses, certainly made the Senate one of the happiest workplaces last Christmas, but some were happier than the others.

That was because the senate president's Christmas list for 1.6 million pesos per senator did not include four of his colleagues.

Senators Antonio "Sonny" Trillanes IV, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Alan Peter and sister Pia Cayetano got only 250,000 pesos each, Inquirer sources said.

The Inquirer obtained a copy of a two-page letter signed by Enrile's chief of staff, Jessica "Gigi" Reyes, to Senate Budget Director Rene Chua confirming in writing Enrile's verbal instructions.

"The SP (senate president) is authorising the release of the additional MOOE (next 2 tranches for December to the ff. senators):" the letter said.

The handwritten note listed Senate President Pro Tempore Jose "Jinggoy" Estrada, Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III, Senators Edgardo Angara, Franklin Drilon, Loren Legarda, Francis Escudero, Sergio Osme?a III, Joker Arroyo, Manuel Villar, Teofisto Guingona III, Lito Lapid, Ramon Revilla Jr., Panfilo Lacson, Francis Pangilinan, Gregorio Honasan, Aquilino Pimentel III, Ralph Recto and Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.

The note said Enrile was "waiving/foregoing any further additional MOOE" for himself.

Senate sources said Chua got verbal instructions to give 1.6 million pesos to 18 senators and 250,000 pesos to four senators.

The Inquirer was able to confirm the gifts from three senators who got 1.6 million pesos each but they asked not to be named so as not to rankle their colleagues.

Curiously, three other senators on the list denied receiving the money.

The Inquirer also saw a copy of a check for 250,000 pesos issued from Enrile's Senate account.

'Nothing irregular'

Two senators who said they were given 1.6 million pesos each said there was nothing irregular about the "gift".

They explained that the senate president had realigned to savings the budget for the 24th and vacant Senate post and distributed the funds to other senators.

For their additional Christmas take, the senators have President Aquino to thank for. The 24th seat was the one held by the then senator before he ran and won for president in 2010.

"There's nothing irregular about it. Under the Constitution, the heads of constitutional offices like the senate president are given the power to realign and utilise appropriations in the budget to other existing items," one senator told the Inquirer.

"In the case of the Senate, there is MOOE for 24 senators but there are only 23 (of us). Therefore, there are unutilised funds which can be realigned to other existing items," the senator added.

Accepted practice

Another senator said using savings to give away as additional MOOE or bonuses was an "accepted and regular practice" in the Senate and other government agencies.

"You can source or pay incentives out of your savings. That is a traditional practice," the second senator said.

The Senate's MOOE for 2012 amounted to 1.4 billion pesos. It includes travel and communication expenses, rent, supplies and utilities, professional services and representation expenses.

But the two senators said the senate president also had the option to return the unused budget to the treasury.

"Of course, we have that option to realign or not to realign," the other senator said.

"Yes we can. In some cases we return (it)," the second senator said.

But another senator found the distribution of the cash gift as anomalous and "very suspicious."

The senator said that while the senate president was authorised to use so-called savings of the Senate, discretionary funds should be "disbursed only for public purposes" and supported by required documents.

"A Christmas gift of 1.6 million pesos does not serve a public purpose. It is unconscionable and unconstitutional," the senator said.

The senator pointed out that the "additional MOOE" was just a cover. "It's the end of the year. What do you need additional MOOE for?" the senator asked.

'Bribe' to head off coup

The senator added that the 1.6 million pesos, in checks issued from Enrile's account, could be "interpreted as a bribe to prevent a Senate reorganisation this January 21, when Congress resumes session".

Enrile had been the subject of ouster rumours ostensibly for his opposition to major pieces of legislation pushed by the Aquino administration, including the sin tax and reproductive health (RH) bills.

These were passed before the Christmas break after long and acrimonious debates in both houses of Congress and which required the president meeting with lawmakers to make a pitch for the passage of the controversial measures.

Some of Enrile's own colleagues view his position as senate president to be untenable because as leader of the opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), he would be campaigning against the administration alliance during the midterm elections this May.

The senator, who questioned Enrile's distribution of the money, noted that the senate president recently talked about possibly resigning after the May elections.

That means, the senator said, Enrile wanted to stay on as senate president during the crucial three-month campaign period for the midterm elections in May.

The senator said Enrile could use the influence of the office of the third highest official of the land to campaign not only against the administration but also for his son Jack, a representative of Cagayan who is running as a senatorial candidate under the UNA slate.

Enrile belongs to UNA which includes Vice President Jejomar Binay, archrival of Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas, touted as the possible presidential candidate of the Aquino-led Liberal Party in 2016.

UNA also includes former President Joseph Estrada, whose other son, San Juan Rep. JV Ejercito, is also running under the UNA senatorial ticket.

Unfilled positions

A look at the Senate budget for 2012 showed that of the 2.8 billion pesos appropriated last year for the chamber's operations, there was a considerable amount of savings generated from "unfilled positions" that were otherwise provided for in the budget.

For 2012, there were 2,162 permanent positions in the Senate, including the senators and their staff. But there were only 1,923 filled positions, leaving 239 unfilled.

The Senate has a 708.1-million pesos budget for the salaries of all permanent positions but the total budget for the filled positions amounted to 656.3 million pesos. That meant 51.8 million pesos in unused funds.

Aside from this, the Senate Electoral Tribunal which has a separate budget of P105.7 million has 52 unfilled positions, corresponding to unused funds worth 112,000 pesos.

Another senator said Enrile's discrimination against four senators smacked of "professional jealousy and political vindictiveness".

The two Cayetanos and Arroyo belong to the minority, which Trillanes joined after a feud with Enrile. Santiago is with the majority.

Trillanes had a bitter public spat with Enrile last September when the much younger senator rose to challenge the veteran politician over the bill that sought to divide Camarines Sur province.

Angered by this, Enrile revealed Trillanes' previously secret role as Mr. Aquino's back-channel negotiator with China.

The senate president read on the Senate floor embarrassing notes of Trillanes' meeting with then Philippine Ambassador to China Sonia Brady in Beijing, prompting Trillanes to walk out of the session hall.

Biscuits returned

Last December, Santiago disclosed that Enrile had returned her and Sen. Pia Cayetano's Christmas gifts (biscuits from Iloilo) because of their sponsorship of the RH bill that Enrile opposed.

Though Enrile was one of Santiago's wedding sponsors, the veteran senator reportedly also resented Santiago when she upstaged him in a survey of senators' performance during the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Enrile was widely praised for his handling of the trial. He also allegedly resented Sen. Alan Cayetano, the minority leader, for questioning some of his rulings, particularly during the Corona impeachment trial.

Aside from the questionable use of the Senate funds as Christmas gifts, a senator wondered about the basis of Enrile in discriminating against his four colleagues.

"What's the legal basis for excluding four senators?" the senator said.

Another senator laughed when told that four colleagues got only 250,000 pesos each.

That, the senator said, was also up to Enrile to decide.

With a report from Norman Bordadora

*US$1=40.8 pesos

COPYRIGHT: ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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