Backstory: The COA Chairs

THE PHILIPPINES has had seven chairpersons for the Commission on Audit (COA) since 1986. Yet while they have wound up being named respondents in court cases, most of these chairpersons have not been as well-known as other leaders of agencies in charge of the budget.

COA exercises the role of making sure that public funds are used properly and in accordance with the law. Its reports and recommendations are important in ensuring budget accountability and curbing corruption, which is why the institution and its heads at times find themselves opposite other public officials in court.

The commission also functions independently and autonomously from other branches of the government. Thus, its leaders tend to not share the prominence of other presidential appointees involved in the budget process such as the members of the cabinet.

COA is composed of a chairman and two commissioners. The constitution requires that they should be certified public accountants or lawyers with at least 10 years of practice in their fields. They should hold office for a term of seven years, without reappointment.

Excluding the current and outgoing chairperson, Ma. Gracia Pulido-Tan, perhaps one of the most recognizable among COA’s previous heads is her immediate predecessor, Reynaldo A. Villar.

Villar ordered the special audit of the Priority Development Assistance Funds that Pulido-Tan continued and which eventually led to the discovery of a wide-scale corruption scheme in the use of pork barrel implicating many public officials, including legislators. Unfortunately, he is remembered more because of controversies he found himself in.

Villar had been with COA for two decades before becoming its chair in 2008. Then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo first made him a commissioner in 2004. After four years, Arroyo appointed him as chairperson, with a term ending in 2011.

The term and manner of appointment brought Villar under the spotlight. Issues on the constitutionality of his assumption to office were raised: first, on the basis of the ban against reappointment since he became the chairperson by virtue of a second appointment, and second, on the end of his term in 2011 as ordered by the president, making his stint as chair last for only three years as opposed to the constitutionally-mandated seven years.

Before the Supreme Court had the chance to decide on these issues, Villar stepped down to make way for Pulido-Tan, who was appointed by President Benigno Simeon ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III in 2011.

In 2012, nonetheless, the court declared Villar’s appointment unconstitutional. The tribunal ruled that while his promotion cannot be considered a reappointment since it was to a different position, his appointment for a period of less than seven years violated the constitution. He could not, furthermore, serve the entire term of a chairperson because he had been a commissioner since 2004. If he was allowed to lead COA from 2008 to 2015, he would have been in the commission for a total of 11 years, again violating the rule that allows commissioners and the chair to hold office for only seven years.

As a result of the decision, COA ordered Villar in January 2014 to return the retirement pay he received as its chair.

Villar’s notoriety did not end there, however. In April 2014, he was arrested in relation to a 2012 case filed against him. He was accused, along with former President Arroyo, of plunder stemming from the alleged irregularities in the use of the confidential intelligence funds of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office. He was released on bail a month later.

Preceding Villar as COA chair was Guillermo Carague, one of the only two people (the other being Celso Gangan) who were able to lead the commission for the entire term of seven years.

Carague was Budget Secretary at the time of Corazon Aquino’s presidency and a member of the Monetary Board of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas during Fidel Ramos’s term. He also ran for senator in 1992 but lost. Arroyo appointed him to COA in 2001, where he would serve until his term expired in 2008.

During his term, Carague instituted the New Government Accounting System (NGAS) to make the country’s auditing system aligned with international standards and to enable its computerization. The COA continues to use the NGAS to this day.

Carague made headlines in 2011 when he denied authorizing former auditor, now COA Commissioner, Heidi Mendoza to conduct audit investigations on the irregular transactions in the military. Mendoza testified before the senate on her audit findings in connection with the plunder case against former Deputy Chief of Staff Carlos Garcia of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Carague signed the office order assigning COA personnel including Mendoza to do the inter-agency investigation requested by the Ombudsman.

The name of another former head of COA was brought in this probe on the corruption in the military: Celso Gangan. Under his watch, Mendoza said, two auditors were able to prolong their stay in the military at the time when the diversion of public funds took place. When he was called in the congressional hearings, Gangan pointed out that he supervised thousands of auditors.

Gangan led COA from 1994 to 2001 and was the fourth chairperson of the commission.

The country’s first COA chair after the EDSA Revolution was Teofisto T. Guingona Jr. While he was one of the most prominent among the roster of COA’s past leaders, he served the institution briefly and was known more due to the other positions he had in the government. He held his post in COA from 1986 until 1987, when he resigned to run for senator.

Guingona went on to become a senator, serving for two consecutive terms. Under the presidency of Fidel Ramos, Guingona was appointed as Executive Secretary and, later, as Secretary of the Department of Justice. He again ran successfully as senator in 1998 and remained in the Senate until 2001.

After EDSA II, Guingona was appointed by Arroyo as Vice President and Foreign Affairs Secretary.

Guingona’s unexpired term (1987 to 1994, pursuant to the seven-year rule) at COA was continued by Eufemio Domingo, who also did not complete the term. Pascacio Banaria succeeded him in 1993, until he retired upon the completion of the term a year later. – PCIJ, February 2015

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