Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - The World Bank in the Philippines has uncovered questionable procurements and disbursements in the high court in connection with the Judicial Reform Support Project (JRSP). The project, partly funded by a World Bank loan of US$21.9 million, was designed to restore efficiency in the dispensation of justice in the country.
In an aide memoire, the World Bank said that since High Court Chief Justice Renato Corona assumed his post in mid-2010, progress in reforming the judiciary "has been rated unsatisfactory", with "implementation delays and additional work required for smooth project closing".
The document detailed the results of a fiduciary review conducted by a World Bank task team on October 24-November 11, 2011, through discussions with justices of the high court and field visits to courts all over the country.
"The review discloses that the fiduciary environment pertaining to JRSP implementation has so deteriorated that the task team now rates the JRSP as a 'high risk ' and 'unsatisfactory ' on project management, project procurement and financial management dimensions, and observes that project financial statements can no longer be relied upon," the World Bank said.
The review uncovered, among others, "inaccurate/incomplete information" on the project 's financial management report, "diminished existing internal check-and-balance mechanism," purchase of information technology equipment outside of the agreed procurement plan, and the practice of borrowing funds from the loan for the justices ' foreign travels, paid to a travel agency owned by lawyer Estelito Mendoza.
The World Bank is now demanding a refund of $199,900, covering "70 payments" deemed "ineligible" or unauthorised under the terms of the JRSP, by January 31.
The World Bank initiated the fiduciary review when Corona was already appointed Chief Justice by then president Gloria Arroyo despite an election ban.
It said the review was "triggered by several withdrawal applications" presented to the World Bank by the tribunal 's Program Management Office (PMO), "which seemed to signal a sudden and significant increase in the disbursement in the latter half of 2011".
"The project result indicators depict achievements in several areas, but significant missed opportunities due to capacity and coordination constraints and delays in decision-making, procurement and contracting," it said.
Included in the "ineligible" purchases were the printing supply of the Court Reporter 's Case Index, purchase of laptop computers, speaker 's fee for seminars, registration fee of justices attending international conferences, and foreign travels of justices and their staff (including airfare, hotel accommodations and meal allowances).
Asked to comment, Ramon Esguerra, a spokesperson of Corona 's legal team, on Saturday said the accusation was "not in any way connected to any of the articles of impeachment" against the Chief Justice.
He said it was the high court as a whole, and not Corona alone, that should respond to the accusation.
"Two days before the opening of the trial and there 's this story?" Esguerra told the Inquirer by phone. "The barrage of black propaganda has not ceased. In fact, it 's now coming out with greater intensity."
Esguerra said media reports on Corona 's alleged ill-gotten wealth, as well as the latest on the supposed fund mismanagement at the high court, were all part of "a pattern of harassment intended to demonise the Chief Justice in the eyes of the public."
"It 's very unfair," he protested.
Corona himself said "it 's hard to answer that [accusation]" because he had yet to read the World Bank aide memoire.
The Inquirer sought his comment after a Tridentine Mass held late Saturday afternoon at the Supreme Court grounds, the last of novena Masses for the embattled Chief Justice.
Corona attended the Mass with his wife and more than 100 sympathisers, including former Philippine Commission on Good Government Chair Camilo Sabio.
The Chief Justice also said he had yet to decide whether he would attend the opening of his impeachment trial on Monday, contradicting Esguerra 's statement that he would show up.
According to the World Bank, the diminished internal auditing mechanism in the high court was exemplified by Corona 's appointment of one man as court administrator, head of the Public Information Office, and chair of the Bids and Awards Committee.
The court administrator was authorised to approve, on Corona 's behalf, payments of up to 200,000 pesos ($4,500) which was later increased to 500,000 pesos ($11,400), the World Bank said.
"Lack of appropriate segregation of duties of key officials involved in the JRSP has created a breakdown of the control environment, increased fiduciary and reputation risks, and led to irregular/inappropriate procurement and expenditure decisions," it said.
Without naming Jose Midas Marquez, the World Bank said "this senior official, due to the combination of his appointments and functions, was the requestor of the services, the approver of the terms of reference, the end-user of the services provided by the firm, the authoriser of contract extensions, and the authoriser of payments to the firm".
It said this arrangement, among others, "present[ed] a conflict of interest and eliminate[d] internal checks and balances applicable to the procurement and disbursement functions".
4 project components
The World Bank approved the loan in 2003 (Loan No. 7191-PH) "to assist the borrower in developing a more effective and accessible judiciary that would foster public trust and confidence through the implementation of the Supreme Court 's Action Program for Judicial Reform (APJR)."
The JRSP is the World Bank 's term for its financial support for the APJR, the brainchild of then Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr., who envisioned the much-needed judicial reforms to be bankrolled by combined resources from the national budget, the judiciary 's own funds and financing from development partners.
The four project components involved improving case adjudication and access to justice (i.e., mobile courts); enhancing institutional integrity (i.e., Code of Ethics and related training of judges and judicial personnel); strengthening the institutional capacity of the judiciary (i.e., e-Library); and support for the reform of the judicial system and for the high court 's PMO.
The judicial reform covered six key areas: judicial system procedures, institutional development, human resources development, integrity infrastructure development, access to justice by the poor, and reform support systems.
The World Bank has participated in all six areas; six other development partners have varying degrees of exposure to the APJR.
The loan was to expire on Dec. 31, 2009, during the incumbency of Chief Justice Reynato Puno. But the World Bank extended the closing date twice-first by 18 months (until June 30, 2011), and then by 12 months (until June 30, 2012).
But due to questions over the fiscal discipline of the tribunal in adhering to loan stipulations, the World Bank canceled the final tranche of the loan amounting to $0.5 million.
Thus far, the tribunal has spent $16.3 million (76 per cent of the revised loan amount of $21.4 million, after deducting the $0.5 million). With reports from Christian V. Esguerra and Philip C. Tubeza
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