THE COMMISSION ON AUDIT (COA) may be the ultimate watchdog or guardian of the public purse. But who watches the watchdog?
This question was raised by participants in the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism’s (PCIJ) advanced investigative reporting seminar, titled Governance by the Numbers: Investigative Reporting and Numeracy. The first leg of the seminars kicked off over the weekend with 18 community journalists from the Visayas region. The seminar is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
During a briefing by Director Camelita Antasuda of the Commission on Audit on how to investigate local government units, community journalists raise questions on the independence of COA auditors at the local level, and whether these auditors can be trusted to deliver a proper audit.
The concern was raised because many COA auditors are dependent on the local government units that they audit for office space and utilities and logistical support. At the same time the local journalists noted how adverse findings from the COA do not seem to carry much weight, as the public officials in question are not being sent to jail.
“Nababayaran ba ang COA,” asked one journalist pointedly.
“Who audits the COA?” asked another.
Antasudo for her part acknowledged that the COA, like any other institution, has its share of bad eggs. Nevertheless, she said that the commission has “very strict rules with its own auditors,” with a number of COA auditors presently under suspension from six months to one year.
“We are also policing our ranks, pag nalaman namin yan, that is investigated and administrative cases are filed,” Antasuda said.
Antasuda said COA was trying to address questions on the commission’s independence by setting up provincial COA offices. The project has already started in some provinces, she said. The objective is to make COA auditors less dependent on local officials.
On the question of who audits COA, Antasuda said that COA is the final auditor. However, she said that even COA audits its own findings, as shown by some later findings that have overturned earlier decisions made by former COA chiefs.
“In a basket of eggs meron talagang bad eggs,” Antasuda said. “But we have very strict rules with our auditors.”
The four day advanced investigative reporting seminar is meant to arm local and national journalists with tools to enable them to source, scan, study, and analyze data such as documents. The seminar includes sessions on how to read and interpret public documents such as the statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALNs) and the statements of contributions and expenses (SOCE) of election candidates, and financial statements of private corporations.
The first leg of the advanced investigative reporting seminar is for Visayas-based journalists. There will be separate seminars for journalists from Mindanao and Luzon.