By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
P38 million ((US$883,720) is nothing to scoff at.
The Confederation for Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (Courage) is extremely disappointed over the July 23 decision of the Court of Appeals to grant a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against the suspension of Caloocan City Mayor Enrico “Recom” Echiverri. The local official was earlier declared suspended by the Office of the Ombudsman following charges of corruption and serious violations against the rules of the Government Social Insurance Service (GSIS).
Courage president Ferdinand Gaite slammed the CA’s decision to grant the TRO, saying that it will set a negative precedent for other government units and agencies.
“The Court’s decision will only serve to embolden officials of government agencies to meddle with our GSIS funds. Stopping Echiverri’s suspension shows that corrupt officials can get away with pilfering the fund supposedly allocated for the benefits of GSIS members and pensioners. Done in the midst of an economic crisis wherein the GSIS funds could have augmented our meager salaries and almost zero benefits, the deliberate non-remittance of our GSIS contributions is tantamount to a criminal act,” Gaite said.
The Office of the Ombudsman earlier on July 19 suspended Echiverri for six months pending an investigation on millions in employee contributions the official allegedly failed to remit to the GSIS. Echiverri and three other local officials city treasurer Evelina Garma, city budget officer Jesusa Garcia, and city accountant Edna Centeno were placed under a six-month preventive suspension for the alleged non-remittance of more than P38 million (US$883,720) representing Caloocan City employees’ GSIS contributions.
Acting Ombudsman Orlando Casimiro laid down the decision saying that the employees’ contributions were not sent to the GSIS and allowing the officials to remain in office would afford them opportunities to “influence potential witnesses or tamper with records which may be vital in the prosecution of the case against them.”
Caloocan vice mayor Edgar Erice charged Echiverri of collecting GSIS premiums from July 1997 to December 2002, and from January 2007 to December 2010 , but failed to remit the contributions. Erice said Echiverri deliberately held on to P38,042,916 (US$ 884,719) collected from Caloocan city employees. He charged the mayor for violations of Republic Act. 8291 (The GSIS Act of 1997) and R.A. 3019 (The Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act).
In the meantime, the GSIS confirmed that the money has not been remitted. The GSIS imposed an interest in the total amount of P260,794,573(US 6.05 million) as of December 31, 2010 on Caloocan City and placed into under “suspended status.” All in all, it’s been reported that the city owes the GSIS P343.8 million (US$ 8 million), including principal, interest, and fines.
In his complaint filed at the Office of the Ombudsman, Erice called Echiverri’s failure to remit the employees’ contributions “appalling” and that because of it, the the rights and privileges of the employees as members of the GSIS have been unduly prejudiced and undermined.
“Unless the outstanding obligations of the city government is settled, the employees of Caloocan City or their dependents cannot fully avail of benefits such as monthly pension, separation benefits, retirement benefits, permanent disability benefits, temporary disability benefits, survivorship benefits, funeral benefits, life insurance benefits, much less avail of loan privileges in times of need.” Erice said. He went on to say that he filed the charges on behalf of the city employees who cannot make formal complaints for fear of reprisal.
Court protecting corruption
Last July 23, the CA’s 14th division issued the TRO against the suspension order against Echiverri.
“Hence to preserve the rights of the petitioners during the pendency of the petition as well as to prevent any judgment that may be promulgated by us from being rendered moot and ineffectual, let a temporary restraining order be issued enjoining the Ombudsman and the Hon. Jess Robredo, secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government together with all persons acting for and in their behalf, from proceeding with the implementation of the petitioners’ preventive suspension as directed under the assailed order of the Office of the Ombudsman,” the court said in a decision penned by Associate Justice Agnes Reyes-Carpio said.
The CA ordered Echiverri and the other officials to post bail of P50,000 (US$1,162) each “which shall answer for whatever damages that may incur in the event that the Court finds petitioners not entitled to the injunctive relief issued.” It also called on the DILG and the Office of the Ombudsman to comment on Echiverri’s petition.
Courage’s Gaite said they were “scandalized and outraged” over the Court’s decision.
“Instead of upholding justice by prosecuting corrupt government officials, the CA chooses to protect these bureaucrats and cover-up their crimes. The objective of a preventive suspension is to prevent the erring official from using his power to tamper with the evidence and coerce employees into silence. We fear that the recent Court decision has effectively nullified the possibility of justice and transparency to prevail,” he said.
The labor leader also criticized the Aquino administration’s complacent attitude toward the issue.
“If the Aquino administration is sincere in its desire to wipe out corruption in the bureaucracy, President Aquino should exhaust all possible measures to ensure that Echiverri and his cohorts are held criminally liable for their failure to remit more than P343.8 million (US$ 8 million), representing the employees’ contributions to the GSIS”, Gaite said.
“Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”
In the meantime, the leader of the government employees’ group also expressed scorn for President Aquino’s second State of the Nation Address (Sona) which he delivered last July 25.
Gaite said said Aquino’s hour-long speech was “full of empty claims designed to give the appearance of accomplishment but sorely lacking in substance.”
“ Despite boasting about improved credit ratings and increased investments in oil resources, the Aquino administration has so far been unable to deal with the long-standing issues of constant price hikes, near-starvation wages, nonexistent benefits, lack of job security and inhumane working conditions—issues that the labor sector has to confront daily. In essence, these numbers regarding upgraded credit ratings mean nothing to the common laborer or rank-and-file employee fight for survival against the soaring prices of basic goods and services,” he said.
Gaite said a glaring example of the President’s incompetence lies in his alleged inability to control the continuously rising prices of oil and other petroleum products and his blatant refusal to implement a substantial wage hike for private and public sector workers.
He also criticized Aquino’s presentation of data as deceptive, “Aquino has the gall to brag that unemployment rates have fallen, but he didn’t say anything about how the number of jobless and underemployed Filipinos increased by over 600,000 in the past year.
Research done by the Ibon Foundation has shown that there are now 11.6 million unemployed and 7.1 million underemployed in the country. The minimum pay for public sector employees remain pegged at P8, 288 (US$ 193) per month and P404 (US$9.40) per day for private sector workers. All in all, the prospects for the labor sector remain bleak,” Gaite said.
The labor leader also said the Aquino administration’s reliance on his Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino program to address the problems of grinding and widespread poverty proves that he has no true intention to go to the roots of the people’s economic woes. He said instead of giving Filipinos dole-outs which will only bring temporary relief, the government should focus on creating stable jobs with living wages.
“ Contrary to Aquino’s claim that Filipinos can now choose between working here in the country or abroad, data has shown that the number of Filipinos choosing to work overseas has grown from 3,500 everyday in 2009 to 4,413 in 2010 — irrefutable proof that the government has failed in its promise to create jobs and halt the previous administration’s labor export policy,” he said.
Finally, Gaite said President’s Aquino’s declarations on the “renewed dignity” of public servants were hollow and untrue.
“Because Aquino has consistently ignored our legitimate demand for a P 6, 000 (US$ 140) increase to the minimum pay of employees, rank-and-file government workers remain notoriously underpaid and overworked. The minimum pay remains far below the estimated Family Living Wage of P29, 640 (US$690) per month. Threats of lay-offs and displacement due to the impending privatization of various government agencies also continue. Our hard-won benefits are revoked in the name of anti-corruption and cost-cutting, while corrupt fat cats remain in the bureaucracy and continue to bleed the government coffers dry. We now ask Aquino, are we supposed to be proud that employees survive under such deplorable conditions? To quote Shakespeare, the 2011 Sona is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” he said.