Catanduanes top officials in hot water over “toga”
By Bobby Q. Labalan
LEGAZPI CITY --- The Commission on Audit (COA) has directed ranking provincial government officials of Catanduanes to “refund immediately” the amount of P499,950.00 which represents the rental payment for “toga”, a gown traditionally used in school graduation rites.
The directive followed the suspension of the fund disbursement made by the provincial government in 2020 when it rented 3,333 togas supposedly for the use of graduating students in various schools in the province.
In its 2022 annual audit report released only this month, the COA said “The payment for toga rental is considered irregular from the very start as the PR prepared and approved contained erroneous data and should not have been subjected to the procurement process in the first place”.
Based on the investigation, the transaction started in February 3, 2020 when the provincial government, then headed by Acting Governor Shirley Abundo, issued a Purchase Request (PR) for the rental of 3,333 togas supposedly for the use of 37 recipient-schools in the province. However, the COA issued a notice of suspension as the document did not contain the number of togas per school, which the agency said is necessary to reconcile it with the number of togas being rented.
In reply, Abundo submitted a list of composed of 56 schools with request letters but the audit agency noted that only 18 of them were in the PR while 19 schools that were in the PR were not in the list submitted.
The COA also observed that while the PR for the 3,333 togas was prepared in February, most of the letter-requests were received by the provincial government in a much later dates which further raised suspicion on the regularity of the transaction.
What made the situation even more ridiculous was that, of the 37 schools stated in the PR, only eight conducted virtual/home-based graduation and only four schools confirmed to have received togas but the Office of the Governor submitted five names of schools which they alleged to have received the gowns, the COA report stressed.
The audit agency also noted that the province of Catanduanes was placed on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic starting March 15, 2020 by virtue of an executive order issued by Abundo herself which stated in part:
“As a precautionary measure, all mass gatherings such as seminars, trainings, fiestas, barangay assemblies, parties, events, medical missions, cockfighting and other related activities are prohibited until further advised by the Emerging/Reemerging Infectious Diseases (EREID) Provincial Task Force. Conduct of graduation rites shall follow the guidelines of the Department of Education in consultation with the Department of Health. LGUs must enforce stricter compliance to social distancing of at least one (1) meter or three (3) feet apart from one person to another.”
The report noted that despite such order, the provincial government still proceeded with the purchase as evidenced by the Purchase Order (PO) signed by the acting governor dated March 25, or ten days after the lockdown took effect, although “the possibility of the conduct of graduation rites was already remote for most schools”.
“The aforementioned inconsistencies and deficiencies noted during the audit rendered the entire transaction irregular”, the report concluded.
Although the COA did not specify who shall refund the rental cost, sources said that it would include those who signed the disbursement documents among them were Acting Governor Abundo, the provincial accountant and the provincial treasurer.
Abundo was the acting governor at the time since Governor Joseph Cua was serving a one-year suspension as ordered by the Office of the Ombudsman.