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Legal fund for graft suspects questioned

House lawmakers on Thursday   expressed serious concern over the use of the P200-million legal aid for  the defense of government officials facing criminal, civil or administrative  charges  under the proposed 2016 budget.

Kabataan party-list Rep. Terry Ridon said the amount was twice the P100-million Legal Assistance Fund for Overseas Filipino Workers.

“While we commiserate with employees that might be subjected to harassment suits, we are more concerned that the fund might be used to finance the defense of  crooks and scoundrels at higher levels of government,” Ridon said.

 He was referring to the Special Provision of the Miscellaneous and Personnel Benefits Fund of the proposed P3-trillion budget for 2016 which reads that: the P200-million Legal Defense Fund will be used to the actual expenses, including payment of premiums for posting of bail bonds and cash advance for expenses incurred by officials and employees of departments, bureaus and offices, in relation to the defense of administrative, civil or criminal cases filed against them in courts for acts committed in the performance of their actual functions.

Earlier, Senator Francis Escudero warned that the so-called legal defense fund should only protect and defend government officials doing official, legal and ethically correct functions.

Escudero said the authorized legal expenses that may be charged against the Legal Defense Fund will be those incurred during the year and limited to the amounts provided in the Commission on Audit Resolution 2013-017 dated Aug. 23, 2013 or such other guidelines that may be issued by agencies concerned.

“If a government official intentionally violates a law such as committing corruption, there should be no place for the Legal Defense Fund to be used in that case. It is so wrong to help in the defense of a crooked government official. We are sending the wrong signal to the people if we approve this wording as is,” Escudero said.

“The public is paying high taxes. Those who are corrupt should be jailed. It is not morally acceptable to defend corruption. How did they arrive at the figure P200-million bail money? Clearly, there’s something wrong in this,” Escudero added.

Given this, House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte said that there should be guidelines in the implementation of the fund. 

Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Zarate and Gabriela party-list Rep Luz Ilagan said it would be impractical for the Aquino government to allocate funds to matters that are deemed unimportant.

“President Aquino and [Budget Secretary Florencio Abad] should prioritize the Legal Assistance Fund for OFWs instead of providing for themselves. Are they that afraid of being charged in court after   June 30   next year?,” Zarate said.  

Abakada party-list Rep. Jonathan dela   Cruz, member of the House Independent Bloc of Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, said the proposed 2016 budget should be amended to specify that the said Legal Defense Fund cannot be used by those who have allegedly taken commissions, kickbacks or any benefit, directly or indirectly, by reason of the performance of their official functions.

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