Philippine Daily Inquirer


- By Dona Z. Pazzibugan @dpazzibuga­nINQ

Solicitor General Jose Calida’s immediate predecesso­r and one of his critics came to his defense on Saturday against allegation­s that he and 14 lawyers in his office received P10.8 million in excess allowances last year in violation of state auditing rules.

A report by the Commission on Audit (COA) for 2017 said Calida got P7.5 million, the biggest chunk of the total excess allowances collected by lawyers of the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG).

The COA said this violated its regulation that placed a cap on allowances equivalent to 50 percent of their annual salaries. It urged Calida and the others to return the excess and deposit it in a trust fund.

Practical reason

Former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, who held the post from August 2014 to June 2016, said OSG lawyers were allowed by law to receive allowances from other government agencies beyond the cap imposed by the 1985 COA circular.

He said the “practical reason” for this was that it allowed the OSG “to retain good lawyers” in the face of the high pay offered by private law firms.

“There is a reason why the right of OSG lawyers are repeated over and over again in statutes, especially to avoid the circular imposed by the COA,” Hilbay said.

“That is a legislativ­e judgment that the resident [COA] auditors must recognize and respect,” he added.

Calida on Friday said ques- tions on the excess allowances were “not new” and that these had been “ongoing for the past five years” since Hilbay’s time.

“The honoraria and allowances were paid in accordance with law,” Calida said.

Allowed by 3 laws

Hilbay said three laws provided for allowances for OSG lawyers: Presidenti­al Decree No. 478 of 1974 (Defining the Powers and Functions of the Office of the Solicitor General); Executive Order No. 292 of 1987 (Institutin­g the “Administra­tive Code of 1987”); and Republic Act No. 9417 of 2007 (An Act to Strengthen the Office of the Solicitor General).

“Law trumps administra­tive circulars. This is basic,” the former Solicitor General said.

“While COA’s circular may have the power to limit allowances of government employees in general, such power must yield to the power of Congress,” he added.

He said he spoke up on the allowance issue “for the protection of the reputation of former and current lawyers of the OSG.”

“I also hope that people’s moral approval or disapprova­l of the current Solicitor General does not affect this legal matter,” Hilbay added.

Quo warranto

Hilbay has been vocal against Calida’s quo warranto case against Maria Lourdes Sereno, which led to the Supreme Court’s 8-6 decision last month to oust the Chief Justice for her failure to submit her complete statements of assets, liabilitie­s and net worth when she applied for the top judicial post in 2012.

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