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Total revamp needed at OGCC, OSG

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The decision of President Rodrigo Duterte to fire Rudolf Philip Jurado as chief of the Office of the Government Corporate Counsel (OGCC) did not come as a surprise to many. It appears that Jurado was fired for allegedly issuing a legal opinion allowing a 75-year lease agreement to a casino operator within the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone at the rate of P150 per square meter, without conducting a public bidding for it. Jurado denies the allegation.

Duterte has been firing many government officials either for corruption or incompetence these past several weeks. Other officials are simply asked to tender their resignation which the President perfunctorily accepts.

About a month ago, Duterte axed Labor Undersecretary Dominador Say for alleged corruption. Another official removed by the President was Assistant Secretary Mark Tolentino of the Department of Transportation. Tolentino’s removal was triggered by his breach of the President’s directive that nobody in government should talk to members of the President’s family regarding government contracts.

Duterte also demanded the resignation of two other assistant secretaries for alleged corruption — Moslemen Macarambon, Sr. of the Department of Justice and Tingagun Umpa of the Department of Public Works and Highways.

At the Department of Tourism (DoT), Duterte accepted the courtesy resignations recently tendered by Secretary Wanda Tulfo-Teo and ex-film actor Cesar Montano who headed the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB).

Teo’s departure from the DoT came in the wake of a P60-million disbursement of DOT funds for advertising spots in her brother’s television program on PTV-4, the government television network.

Montano’s resignation was brought about by the discovery that his so-called “Buhay Carinderia” project worth P80 million did not undergo a public bidding. His last trip abroad at public expense was to New York City where he was to grace an exhibit relating to the said project. He was also criticized for supposedly being more interested in watching a musicale in Broadway than in attending to the project’s concerns.

Many more officials are set to be sacked as the President continues to rid his Cabinet of the corrupt and the incompetent.

Speaking of the OGCC, the Commission on Audit (CoA) recently disallowed the payment of allowances worth millions of pesos to lawyers of the government legal office last year.

Under the rules of the CoA, allowances paid to the OGCC lawyers by government corporations that those lawyers represent in court litigations, must be paid to the OGCC first, which will then remit the allowance to the OGCC lawyer concerned. This arrangement allows the state, acting through the OGCC, to withhold the corresponding income tax due on the allowance.

News reports reveal that the OGCC lawyers get their allowances directly from the government corporations, thus defying the OGCC directive in the process. As a result, no taxes are withheld, At the end of the day, the government is allegedly deprived of the tax revenues it is entitled to.

Jurado told the news media that he instructed his deputies and top assistants in the OGCC to comply with the directive of the CoA, and that they did not comply with his order. He identified them as Deputy Government Corporate Counsel Elpidio Vega and Assistant Government Corporate Counsels Bel Derayuhan, Ma. Dolores Rigonan, Dominador Isidro, Jr., Marilyn Estaris, Romelina Apostol, Efren Gonzales and Jose Marie Capili.

It appears that lawyers of the OGCC are entitled to allowances from every government corporation they represent in any litigation. Those allowances become very sizeable depending on the number of government corporations represented, the number of court hearings attended, and the extent of court pleadings prepared. This sum is in addition to the attractive salaries and other financial compensation paid to the lawyer as a lawyer-employee of the OGCC.

About two months ago, the OGCC opposed a legislative proposal to merge the OGCC with the OSG, with the OSG as the absorbing entity. It was argued that if the merger pushed through, a problem involving a conflict of interest may arise when the government itself, represented by the OSG, may have to file a case against a government corporation, likewise represented by the OSG.

Last week, the CoA questioned the validity of the allowances received by lawyers of the OSG last year. It was reported that Solicitor General Jose Calida and 14 of his lawyers in the OSG received a total of P10.8 million in excess of legally permissible allowances, with P1.8 million of that excess sum having gone to Calida. The CoA maintained that under a 1985 CoA circular, a government official is not allowed to receive allowances in a total amount in excess of fifty percent of his annual salary and that the OSG lawyers identified by Jurado violated that rule.

As in the case of the OGCC, the allowances received by Calida and his lawyers in the OSG are paid by government agencies which the OSG has represented, or is representing in a court litigation. That money comes from taxpayers.

Calida and ex-Solcitor General Florin Hilbay insist otherwise. They said a presidential decree, an executive order with the force and effect of law, and a republic act allow OSG lawyers to draw allowances beyond the ceiling imposed by the CoA, and that these laws are superior to an administrative regulation like the 1985 CoA circular.

Another excuse advanced by the OSG is that these allowances help it discourage its lawyers from getting employment elsewhere, particularly in large, private law firms that offer better compensation.

If that is so, then something is wrong somewhere.

The practice in the past of employees of a particular government agency getting bigger salaries and allowances than employees of the same rank in other government agencies was criticized as undue favoritism. Why should an employee in one government agency draw a higher compensation package than another employee of the same rank in another government agency?

To address this inequity, Congress enacted the Salary Standardization Law which mandates that government employees belonging to the same rank shall be entitled to the same compensation package, regardless of the government agency that employee is working for.
Accordingly, when a government employee of a particular salary grade ends up with an annual total compensation package bigger than other government employees of the same grade, there is manifest inequity. That inequity may even amount to a violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution which mandates that “persons who are similarly situated should be treated similarly” and that “classification, to be valid, must be based on distinctions which make real differences.”

It did not take long before government agencies run by scheming agency heads put one over the Salary Standardization Law by getting their agencies exempted from the coverage of the law. One such agency is the Social Security System, which is currently plagued with the specter of being unable to pay its members after year 2022.

Today, there are too may exemptions from the Salary Standardization Law that it will not be a surprise to learn that there are more government agencies exempted from the law than those which are covered by it. Good grief! That arrangement renders the law inutile.

By its very nature, an allowance is an ancillary form of compensation. This means that an allowance is meant to augment a principal income like one’s salary. Being a mere ancillary form of compensation, an allowance should not be in an amount greater than one’s salary.

Thus, where a government employee’s monthly allowance far outweighs his monthly salary, there is something irregular somewhere.

Years ago, a justice of the Supreme Court was able to draw an allowance far bigger than his monthly salary. That justice got involved in an anomaly and as punishment, his allowance was reduced by half. The incident has not been disseminated thoroughly to the public.
Take the case of Solicitor General Calida. According to the CoA, Calida received an excess of P10.8-million in allowances for 2017 alone. That’s almost a million pesos every month in excess allowances. It also means that for every month of 2017, Calida drew his monthly salary, plus a monthly allowance of half of his monthly salary, plus a little less than a million pesos. That’s just for one month. Why, that’s a monthly compensation bigger than what President Duterte, Calida’s own boss, is entitled to under the Constitution! Something is wrong here.

The lawyers in the OGCC and in the OSG should set the example among lawyers working in the government by refraining from drawing excessive compensation, particularly monthly allowances in an amount far more than half of their monthly salary. They should not get any allowance from government agencies they assist mainly because that is their nature of their work in the first place.

Considering that, from all indications, the lawyers in the OGCC and the OSG have been enjoying financial perks that smack of inequity and possible illegality, then a revamp in both offices is most certainly in order.

It’s time for President Duterte to look into these two agencies.

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