ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
Philippines' straight-talking audit chief shuns PR, fears none
Publication Date : 29-09-2013
Grace Pulido Tan is the lead of an investigation involving US$228-million funds misused by politicians and bogus NGOs
She is a straight talker and will not mince her words.
“Mataray ako (I’m a b—-!),” declares Commission on Audit (COA) Chair Grace Pulido Tan.
“I’m very unforgiving sa mga pasaway (of incorrigibles), especially the corrupt, doble-kara (hypocrites), hindi marunong lumugar (those who don’t know their place) at iyong sipsip (brown-nosers). They don’t appeal to me,” she said.
Government service is not her cup of tea either, thus she does not get attached to a position or the perks that go with it.
“I’m just passing through and whatever good I can do now, whatever good we can do together, then I will be forever thankful for the privilege,” Tan said in an interview.
The CPA-lawyer spent 30 years in the private sector, before becoming commissioner in the Presidential Commission on Good Government in 2002, and undersecretary in the Department of Finance from 2003 to 2005.
“I really feel that I’m where I am not because I aspire for it, not because I dreamt about it or it’s my ambition to be here. It’s where God wants me to be at this point in my life, and whatever inadequacies, dangers there may be or problems there will be, I’m very confident that He’s going to see me through,” she said.
Tan said she was not the “personal choice” of President Aquino to head the COA, the agency that has so unsettled the Senate, the House of Representatives and Malacanang itself because of its explosive findings on how the highest officials in government have misspent or stolen outright the people’s money.
Neither is she a “KKK,” she said, referring to the shorthand for those closest and dearest to the President (kaklase, kaibigan, kabarilan, or classmate, friend and shooting buddy).
“Before my appointment, I never met him although I was one of the volunteers during the [2010 presidential] campaign. I’d seen him two or three times but I don’t think I was formally introduced to him or he would have remembered me because there were millions of volunteers then,” she said.
Tan started her career in 1982 as an associate at the Sycip Salazar Feliciano and Hernandez Law Offices, the biggest law firm in the country. After completing her master of laws, she worked as a tax specialist at the New York City offices of KPMG Peat Marwick Main & Co. She returned to the Philippines in 1988 and cofounded the Tan Venturanza Valdez Law office where she was the senior partner in charge of tax and special projects until she joined government service in 2002.
Tan has a degree in accounting from the University of the Philippines where she also finished law at the top 10 of her class. She finished her master’s degree in law specializing in taxation at the New York University as a Gerald Wallace scholar.
She is an expert on tax, corporations, investments and property development, and also served as independent director of a commercial bank, where she headed the risk management and internal audit committees.
She still lectures on tax and corporations in the mandatory continuing legal education program of the Supreme Court.
Accepting the position of COA chief was not easy, Tan said. She recounted how emphatic she was in saying “no” to Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima who nominated her to the President.
She recalled how she jokingly told Purisima to think twice about hiring her as she is known to be “mataray and nang-aaway,” (bitchy and quarrelsome), traits which Purisima said were needed for the job.
“I finally accepted this job because my children are all grown up and they’re not here so I don’t have to worry about them too much. It’s just me and my husband,” she said.
Tan is married to a lawyer and has five children who are all based abroad.
She described her husband, Bayani, as “very secure,” and one who supports his wife’s work.
Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, in his privilege speech excoriating the COA’s special audit of congressional pork barrel fund releases where he figured among the top spenders, wondered how Tan could focus on her job when she was traveling out of the country so much in the three years she has been in office. By Estrada’s count, Tan has been abroad 33 times between 2010 and 2013.
Tan explained that her frequent travels were all official except one instance when she went on emergency leave to visit one of her children at no cost to the government.
Not one who would willingly spend money for public relations, Tan turns down 90 per cent of all invitations for speaking engagements.
“If the media want to come to me, want to ask me, okay I’m cheap, but for me to seek the media, no, it’s not my style. I know a lot of public officials, especially in positions like mine, have a budget for that but not for me,” she said.
Tan said she understands why her predecessors were reluctant about opening the COA and themselves up to the public. Both the public and the media could also be very unforgiving sometimes, she said.
“Who wants to have that kind of exposure? You get the flak, the intrigues, the speculations,” she said.
Tan said it is not the media interest that drives her to engage them or to be open to the public.
“I don’t think the interest alone of the media should be a factor. It’s my accountability to the people. I think it’s the other way around. It’s more what I think is my accountability to the people, my responsibility to society, about getting facts straight. I make them understand who we are, what is it that we do, and how can you help us (succeed),” she stressed.
Gov’t has timeline
As COA chair, Tan said she understood why it takes time for government agencies to comply with COA audit report recommendations. She said that even in the private sector, which is almost 100-per-cent computerised, it also takes time to settle accountabiltiies.
“In the government, there is also a timeline. The record-keeping in government is sloppy, a lot of people in the accounting staff of agencies perhaps are not too eager to do their jobs with dispatch. Even when they are just walking, they take so long, doesn’t it?” she said.
But Tan said the COA has demanded that everyone who has outstanding or unliquidated cash advances as of 2011 to liquidate by Jan. 30, 2014, or face charges.
She said the COA has no prosecutorial powers, and merely refers adverse audit findings, especially fraud audit, to the Office of the Ombudsman.
She would wish that everyone outside of government will have the opportunity no matter how briefly to be on the other side so they can see for themselves the structures of government that make things difficult to move sometimes.
“But we’re doing our best to see where we can move things up and hopefully we will see some progress by this year,” she said.
Tan said she is staying at COA only until Feb. 2, 2015, but would always remind her employees that they don’t need “padrinos” or sponsors, or recommendation letters from politicians as she will always look at them based on merit.
A COA chair is usually given a seven-year term but Tan is staying at her post for only four years as she is just serving out the remaining years of the term of her predecessor, Reynaldo Villar.
Tan is seeking election as a member of the United Nations Board of Auditors for a six-year term, from July 2014 to June 2020.
Tan acknowledged that there will always be people who will never stop getting back at her but she is taking this as part of the territory.
“I’m very, very hands on. I work as everyone else and I always tell [staff] that I am not going to accept anything from them that I myself am not willing to do or give. So if I’m working hard,’ I expect everyone to work as hard as well,” she said.
“I don’t know what style I have. All I know is I’m a very commonsensical person, I do not agonize about decisions. I think I say what I want,” Tan said.
Tan swears her life is not dramatic, although she has received death threats, especially during her early days at the COA.
“I live by the day. Hey, I’m still alive! I’m still alive! Okay, next!” she said with a laugh.