(STAR) By Aurea Calica  —  President Arroyo’s campaign against corruption is now focused on officials of government-owned firms, particularly members of boards of directors found to have granted themselves "lavish executive privileges."

In yesterday’s press briefing here, the President said she will order Budget Secretary Emilia Boncodin to look into the expenditures of government-owned and -controlled corporations and government financial institutions, particularly those granting its officials excessive "perks and privileges."

Mrs. Arroyo also directed Boncodin to file appropriate charges against officials found to have violated the guidelines on austerity measures she set forth in Administrative Order No. 103.

AO 103 mandates government officials to shun profligacy or be dismissed from government service. Officials found guilty of reckless wastefulness and extravagance may face criminal charges as well.

The austerity program under AO 103 is in addition to ongoing lifestyle checks on government officials and employees believed to be living beyond their means.

Mrs. Arroyo said she had been careful in dealing with "professional managers" whom she had asked to leave high-paying jobs at private companies in order to work for the government.

"I’m very careful that I don’t reduce the compensation of professional managers, (such as the) president of a company, otherwise we lose (them) to the private sector," she said, citing the case of National Transmission Corp. president and chief executive officer Allan Ortiz. "They deserve the compensation because that is their career."

Members of a government-owned firm’s board of directors, on the other hand, won’t be as lucky.

"Members of the board, things like that, they don’t have to (stay). They’re replaceable," the President emphasized.

Mrs. Arroyo said this was why she was being strict with board members, especially since many of them tend to live lavishly while in position.

"So we have guidelines for members of the board. I will ask Secretary Boncodin... who issued the guidelines to check on these corporations again. If any have been found to have violated the guidelines she enunciated, then I will ask her to take administrative action against them," she said.

Boncodin welcomed the President’s order, citing the need to impress upon government officials that AO 103 was not merely a piece of paper.

"That’s very good. The AO does not have teeth if we don’t start imposing sanctions. This will demonstrate that we are serious about our (campaign) against corruption," Boncodin said in a telephone interview from Manila.

The President earlier warned government officials to stop wasting public funds on excessive perks and privileges, saying no one in her administration "is indispensable or untouchable."

She said her administration "will not tolerate corruption in any form" and that no high officials would be sacred cows.

Mrs. Arroyo also encouraged the public, particularly witnesses to anomalies in government, to submit evidence of these anomalies to the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission.

"Each official, department or agency charged or even alluded to in such anomalies are expected to set the record straight if the allegations are wrong or submit themselves to impartial administrative or judicial probes," she said.

The President stressed that public officials must set an example of honesty, discipline and frugality, alluding to recent controversies over a resurgence in the illegal numbers game jueteng and reports that officials of the government-owned Coconut Industry Investment Fund (CIIF) have been enjoying lavish privileges with public funds.

The jueteng allegations tagged Mrs. Arroyo’s husband and eldest son as protectors and beneficiaries of the gambling racket, but the President challenged those behind the exposés to file cases before the Office of the Ombudsman.

As for the lavish executive privileges, Mrs. Arroyo said "perks or lavishness of officials" involving the use of public funds should be stopped. She vowed to continue the fight against graft and corruption and to promote "good governance, transparency, and top quality public services."

Earlier, former Presidential Commission on Good Government chairwoman Haydee Yorac charged that millions of pesos were being spent by CIIF officials, citing vehicle purchases, golf and country club memberships, gasoline and food expense accounts, and travel expenses.

But CIIF president Rolando Golez said all these executive privileges are part of the policies approved by a committee composed of the firm’s directors.

Yorac noted that CIIF officials purchased motor vehicles worth P19 million from February 2003 to February 2005 which they were then allowed to purchase at book value after depreciation. She also said there was a huge budget allotted for membership in golf and country clubs, "a luxury," she said, "which the (coconut) farmers can ill afford."

The CIIF is in charge of funds originally levied against coconut farmers under the Marcos regime. The funds are now held by the government in a public trust.

Yorac also questioned the travel privileges of its executives, which include a per diem allowance of $300 to $500 and an expense allowance for the wife or husband.

The President’s anti-corruption pronouncements were made in the wake of stern reminders from United States Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick that the Philippines should make more progress in its fight against corruption and accelerate peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front if the country is to benefit from increased development assistance.

Mrs. Arroyo countered that her administration’s anti-corruption drive was progressing "and we’re determined to make headway."

She also said Washington was actually very supportive of the Philippines’ bid to partake in the United States’ $5-billion Millennium Challenge Account, an indication that Washington was satisfied with Manila’s efforts to combat graft and corruption. Crack The Whip

Meanwhile, House Assistant Majority Leader Antonio Cerilles and Davao Oriental Rep. Mayo Almario urged Mrs. Arroyo to crack the whip on government officials who continue to misuse public funds on excessive perks and privileges.

"Those in government have to earn a living — but not (engage in) high living at the public’s expense. After all, it is public service they should focus on," Cerilles said.

He said the perks and privileges granted to officials of government-owned firms should be reviewed to determine if these are attuned to the government’s austerity measures.

"Several months ago, we identified the so-called ‘fat cats’ in government. Let’s revisit them to see if they have lost weight. Those who have not should be liposuctioned out of the government," Cerilles said.

Almario said these officials "who have gotten too used to fine dining and perks should be put out to pasture."

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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