[EXPLAINER] State auditors have bad news for COVID-19 ‘epal’

As we get by practically just winging it, the pandemic has exposed not just the wretched state of our healthcare system, but tested the mettle of our elected official as well.

While there are those who have impressed us with their quick but well-thought-out responses to the crisis, there are those who have treated this unfortunate period in the nation’s life as just another forum for shamelessly advertising themselves, perhaps with the next elections in mind.

Social media abound with photos of food packs, even alcohol bottles, sanitizers, and face masks with politicians’ names and faces splattered on them. I’m sure many of you have seen the photos of personal protective equipment (PPE) and boxes of testing kits labeled with the name of a politician whose help was supposedly sought to distribute them.

We all now call it “pa-epal” or simply “epal” – a slang which must have come from the “pumapapel” or “nagpapalapad ng papel,” referring to someone who inappropriately assumes a role or invites himself to a situation.

In 2013 election period, the term became popular after it was used to refer to incumbent politicians who put their names and faces on government properties as their way of advertising themselves at the expense of the taxpayers.

In response, the Commission on Audit (COA), under the leadership of then-chairperson Grace Pulido Tan, worked with the Commission on Elections (Comelec) in 2013 to issue COA Circular No. 2013-004, dated January 30, 2013.

This groundbreaking “anti-epal” circular seeks to curb the prevalent practice of incumbent politicians of labeling or branding government-funded projects with their names and faces as a form of premature campaigning. It specifically bans the act of affixing the “picture, image, motto, logo, color motif, initials or other symbol or graphic representation associated with the top leadership of the project proponent” on any government-funded projects, programs and activities.

One of the things the law specifically bans is the branding of wrappers, containers, t-shirts (and other apparel), and vehicles of all types which are procured or funded using public money.

The ban also covers the act of affixing the names of politicians on tarpaulins and signboards during the distribution of relief goods and services and the conduct of medical missions, trainings, workshops, and seminars. 

In the current context, for instance, this means senators dreaming of becoming president or governors and mayors aspiring for reelection cannot put their names, initials, or faces on relief goods, PPE sets, or COVID-19 testing kits.

Under the audit circular, committing such “epal” act is deemed a ground for automatic disallowance of expenses for being “unnecessary.”

“Unnecessary expenses” is defined as those that are not essential to the nature of the agency’s operations or exigencies of the service. If the expenditure is found to be unnecessary, the “epal” politician will be held personally liable to refund the disallowed amounts. He shall be obliged to pay the government the amount spent on the project which he branded as his. 

The erring official can also be held administratively and criminally liable under Presidential Decree 1445 or the Government Auditing Code. The COA auditor who fails to implement the circular is equally liable under the same law. 

While this COA circular was adopted on January 30, 2013, and last amended on August 16, 2016 (COA Circular No. 2016-003), it remains effective and applies even outside of the context of elections. 

Politicians have to be reminded that the best way to advertise themselves for reelection is through proven and effective leadership and not by shamelessly plastering one’s name and face on wrappers and packages. Not only does it cheapen the office,  it is technically an act of misappropriating government funds for one’s personal gain. 

The full text of COA Circular No. 2013-004 can be accessed here for guidance and further reading. – Rappler.com 

Emil Marañon III is an election lawyer specializing in automated election litigation and consulting. He is one of the election lawyers consulted by the camp of Vice President Leni Robredo, whose victory is being contested by former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Marañon served in Comelec as chief of staff of retired Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. He is a partner at Trojillo Ansaldo and Marañon (TAM) Law Offices.