Republic of the Philippines
SUPREME COURT
Manila

EN BANC

G.R. No. 147392             March 12, 2004

BENEDICTO ERNESTO R. BITONIO, JR., petitioner,
vs.
COMMISSION ON AUDIT and CELSO D. GANGAN, CHAIRMAN OF THE COMMISSION ON AUDIT, respondents.


D E C I S I O N


CALLEJO, SR., J.:

The instant petition filed under Rule 64 of the Revised Rules of Court seeks the annulment of the Decision1 of the Commission on Audit (COA) dated January 30, 2001 denying the petitioner’s motion for the reconsideration of the COA Notices of Disallowance Nos. 98-008-101 (95) and 98-017-101 (97) dated July 31, 1998 and October 9, 1998, respectively, involving the per diems the petitioner received from the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA). In order to avoid multiplicity of suits, an Amended Petition2 dated August 16, 2002 was later filed to include in the resolution of the instant petition Notice of Disallowance No. 98-003-101 (96) dated July 31, 1998 which was belatedly received by the petitioner on August 13, 2002.

The antecedent facts are as follows:

In 1994, petitioner Benedicto Ernesto R. Bitonio, Jr. was appointed Director IV of the Bureau of Labor Relations in the Department of Labor and Employment.

In a Letter dated May 11, 1995 addressed to Honorable Rizalino S. Navarro, then Secretary of the Department of Trade and Industry, Acting Secretary Jose S. Brilliantes of the Department of Labor and Employment designated the petitioner to be the DOLE representative to the Board of Directors of PEZA.3 Such designation was in pursuance to Section 11 of Republic Act No. 7916, otherwise known as the Special Economic Zone Act of 1995, which provides:

Section 11. The Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) Board. – There is hereby created a body corporate to be known as the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA)…

The Board shall be composed of the Director General as ex officio chairman with eight (8) members as follows: the Secretaries or their representatives of the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Finance, the Department of Labor and Employment, the Department of [the] Interior and Local Government, the National Economic and Development Authority, and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, one (1) representative from the labor sector, and one (1) representative from the investor/business sector in the ECOZONE.

Members of the Board shall receive a per diem of not less than the amount equivalent to the representation and transportation allowances of the members of the Board and/or as may be determined by the Department of Budget and Management: Provided, however, That the per diem collected per month does not exceed the equivalent of four (4) meetings.

As representative of the Secretary of Labor to the PEZA, the petitioner was receiving a per diem for every board meeting he attended during the years 1995 to 1997.

After a post audit of the PEZA’s disbursement transactions, the COA disallowed the payment of per diems to the petitioner and thus issued the following:

(a) Notice of Disallowance No. 98-008-101 (95) dated July 31, 1998 for the total sum of P24,500 covering the period of July-December 1995;

(b) Notice of Disallowance No. 98-003-101 (96) also dated July 31, 1998 for a total amount of P100,000 covering the period of January 1996 to January 1997;4

(c) Notice of Disallowance No. 98-017-101 (97) dated October 9, 1998 for the total amount of P210,000 covering the period of February 1997 to January 1998.

The uniform reason for the disallowance was stated in the Notices, as follows:

Cabinet members, their deputies and assistants holding other offices in addition to their primary office and to receive compensation therefore was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Civil Liberties Union vs. Executive Secretary. Disallowance is in pursuance to COA Memorandum No. 97-038 dated September 19, 1997 implementing Senate Committee Report No. 509.5

On November 24, 1998, the petitioner filed his motion for reconsideration to the COA on the following grounds:

1. The Supreme Court in its Resolution dated August 2, 1991 on the motion for clarification filed by the Solicitor General modified its earlier ruling in the Civil Liberties Union case which limits the prohibition to Cabinet Secretaries, Undersecretaries and their Assistants. Officials given the rank equivalent to a Secretary, Undersecretary or Assistant Secretary and other appointive officials below the rank of Assistant Secretary are not covered by the prohibition.

2. Section 11 of R.A. No. 7916 provides the legal basis for the movant to receive per diem. Said law was enacted in 1995, four years after the Civil Liberties Union case became final. In expressly authorizing per diems, Congress should be conclusively presumed to have been aware of the parameters of the constitutional prohibition as interpreted in the Civil Liberties Union case.6

On January 30, 2001, the COA rendered the assailed decision denying petitioner’s motion for reconsideration.

Hence, this petition.

The issue in this case is whether or not the COA correctly disallowed the per diems received by the petitioner for his attendance in the PEZA Board of Directors’ meetings as representative of the Secretary of Labor.

We rule in the affirmative.

The COA anchors the disallowance of per diems in the case of Civil Liberties Union v. Executive Secretary7 where the Court declared Executive Order No. 2848 allowing government officials to hold multiple positions in government, unconstitutional. Thus, Cabinet Secretaries, Undersecretaries, and their Assistant Secretaries, are prohibited to hold other government offices or positions in addition to their primary positions and to receive compensation therefor, except in cases where the Constitution expressly provides. The Court’s ruling was in conformity with Section 13, Article VII of the 1987 Constitution which reads:

Sec. 13. The President, Vice-President, the Members of the Cabinet, and their deputies or assistants shall not, unless otherwise provided in this Constitution, hold any other office or employment during their tenure. They shall not, during their tenure, directly or indirectly, practice any other profession, participate in any business or be financially interested in any other contract with, or in any franchise, or special privilege granted by the Government or any subdivision, agency or instrumentality thereof, including any government-owned or controlled corporations or their subsidiaries. They shall strictly avoid conflict of interest in the conduct of their office.

The spouse and relatives by consanguinity or affinity within the fourth civil degree of the President shall not, during his tenure, be appointed as members of the Constitutional Commissions, or the Office of the Ombudsman, or as Secretaries, Undersecretaries, Chairmen, or heads of bureaus or offices, including government-owned or controlled corporations and subsidiaries.

Pursuant to the Court’s ruling in this case and the Senate Committee Report on the Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations (Blue Ribbon),9 the COA issued Memorandum No. 97-038 which authorized the issuance of the Notices of Disallowances for the per diems received by the petitioner. It states:

The Commission received a copy of Senate Committee Report No. 509 urging "the Commission on Audit to immediately cause the disallowance of any payment of any form of additional compensation or remuneration to cabinet secretaries, their deputies and assistants, or their representatives in violation of the rule on multiple positions and to effect the refund of any and all such additional compensation given to and received by the officials concerned, or their representatives, from the time of the finality of the Supreme Court ruling in Civil Liberties Union vs. Executive Secretary to the present." In the Civil Liberties Union case, the Supreme Court ruled that Cabinet Secretaries, their deputies and assistants may not hold any other office or employment. It declared Executive Order No. 284 unconstitutional insofar as it allows Cabinet members, their deputies and assistants to hold other offices in addition to their primary office and to receive compensation therefor. The said decision became final and executory on August 19, 1991.

In view thereof, all unit heads/auditors/team leaders of the national government agencies and government-owned or controlled corporations which have effected payment of subject allowances are directed to implement the recommendation contained in the subject Senate Committee Report by undertaking the following audit action: …10

The petitioner maintains that he is entitled to the payment of per diems, as R.A. No. 7916 specifically and categorically provides for the payment of a per diem for the attendance of the members of the Board of Directors at board meetings of PEZA. The petitioner contends that this law is presumed to be valid; unless and until the law is declared unconstitutional, it remains in effect and binding for all intents and purposes. Neither can this law be rendered nugatory on the basis of a mere memorandum circular – COA Memorandum No. 97-038 issued by the COA. The petitioner stresses that R.A. No. 7916 is a statute more superior than an administrative directive and the former cannot just be repealed or amended by the latter.

The petitioner also posits that R.A. No. 7916 was enacted four (4) years after the case of Civil Liberties Union was promulgated. It is, therefore, assumed that the legislature, before enacting a law, was aware of the prior holdings of the courts. Since the constitutionality or the validity of R.A. No. 7916 was never challenged, the provision on the payment of per diems remains in force notwithstanding the Civil Liberties Union case. Nonetheless, the petitioner’s position as Director IV is not included in the enumeration of officials prohibited to receive additional compensation as clarified in the Resolution of the Court dated August 1, 1991; thus, he is still entitled to receive the per diems.

The petitioner’s contentions are untenable.

It must be noted that the petitioner’s presence in the PEZA Board meetings is solely by virtue of his capacity as representative of the Secretary of Labor. As the petitioner himself admitted, there was no separate or special appointment for such position.11 Since the Secretary of Labor is prohibited from receiving compensation for his additional office or employment, such prohibition likewise applies to the petitioner who sat in the Board only in behalf of the Secretary of Labor.

The petitioner’s case stands on all fours with the case of Dela Cruz v. Commission on Audit.12 Here, the Court upheld the COA in disallowing the payment of honoraria and per diems to the officers concerned who sat as members of the Board of Directors of the National Housing Authority. The officers concerned sat as alternates of their superiors in an ex officio capacity. Citing also the Civil Liberties Union case, the Court explained thus:

"The ex-officio position being actually and in legal contemplation part of the principal office, it follows that the official concerned has no right to receive additional compensation for his services in the said position. The reason is that these services are already paid for and covered by the compensation attached to his principal office. It should be obvious that if, say, the Secretary of Finance attends a meeting of the Monetary Board as an ex-officio member thereof, he is actually and in legal contemplation performing the primary function of his principal office in defining policy in monetary banking matters, which come under the jurisdiction of his department. For such attendance, therefore, he is not entitled to collect any extra compensation, whether it be in the form of a per diem or an honorarium or an allowance, or some other such euphemism. By whatever name it is designated, such additional compensation is prohibited by the Constitution."

Since the Executive Department Secretaries, as ex-officio members of the NHA Board, are prohibited from receiving "extra (additional) compensation, whether it be in the form of a per diem or an honorarium or an allowance, or some other such euphemism," it follows that petitioners who sit as their alternates cannot likewise be entitled to receive such compensation. A contrary rule would give petitioners a better right than their principals.13

Similarly in the case at bar, we cannot allow the petitioner who sat as representative of the Secretary of Labor in the PEZA Board to have a better right than his principal. As the representative of the Secretary of Labor, the petitioner sat in the Board in the same capacity as his principal. Whatever laws and rules the member in the Board is covered, so is the representative; and whatever prohibitions or restrictions the member is subjected, the representative is, likewise, not exempted. Thus, his position as Director IV of the DOLE which the petitioner claims is not covered by the constitutional prohibition set by the Civil Liberties Union case is of no moment. The petitioner attended the board meetings by the authority given to him by the Secretary of Labor to sit as his representative. If it were not for such designation, the petitioner would not have been in the Board at all.

There is also no merit in the allegation that the legislature was certainly aware of the parameters set by the Court when it enacted R.A. No. 7916, four (4) years after the finality of the Civil Liberties Union case. The payment of per diems was clearly an express grant in favor of the members of the Board of Directors which the petitioner is entitled to receive.

It is a basic tenet that any legislative enactment must not be repugnant to the highest law of the land which is the Constitution. No law can render nugatory the Constitution because the Constitution is more superior to a statute.14 If a law happens to infringe upon or violate the fundamental law, courts of justice may step in to nullify its effectiveness.15 It is the task of the Court to see to it that the law must conform to the Constitution. In the clarificatory resolution issued by the Court in the Civil Liberties Union case on August 1, 1991, the Court addressed the issue as to the extent of the exercise of legislative prerogative, to wit:

The Solicitor General next asks: "x x x may the Decision then control or otherwise encroach on the exclusive competence of the legislature to provide funds for a public purpose, in terms of compensation or honoraria under existing laws, where in the absence of such provision said laws would otherwise meet the terms of the "exception by law?" Again, the question is anchored on a misperception. It must be stressed that the so-called "exclusive competence of the legislature to provide funds for a public purpose" or to enact all types of laws, for that matter, is not unlimited. Such competence must be exercised within the framework of the fundamental law from which the Legislature draws its power and with which the resulting legislation or statute must conform. When the Court sets aside legislation for being violative of the Constitution, it is not thereby substituting its wisdom for that of the Legislature or encroaching upon the latter’s prerogative, but again simply discharging its sacred task of safeguarding and upholding the paramount law.

The framers of R.A. No. 7916 must have realized the flaw in the law which is the reason why the law was later amended by R.A. No. 874816 to cure such defect. In particular, Section 11 of R.A. No. 7916 was amended to read:

SECTION 11. The Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) Board. – There is hereby created a body corporate to be known as the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) attached to the Department of Trade and Industry. The Board shall have a director general with the rank of department undersecretary who shall be appointed by the President. The director general shall be at least forty (40) years of age, of proven probity and integrity, and a degree holder in any of the following fields: economics, business, public administration, law, management or their equivalent, and with at least ten (10) years relevant working experience preferably in the field of management or public administration.

The director general shall be assisted by three (3) deputy directors general each for policy and planning, administration and operations, who shall be appointed by the PEZA Board, upon the recommendation of the director general. The deputy directors general shall be at least thirty-five (35) years old, with proven probity and integrity and a degree holder in any of the following fields: economics, business, public administration, law, management or their equivalent.

The Board shall be composed of thirteen (13) members as follows: the Secretary of the Department of Trade and Industry as Chairman, the Director General of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority as Vice-chairman, the undersecretaries of the Department of Finance, the Department of Labor and Employment, the Department of [the] Interior and Local Government, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Public Works and Highways, the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Energy, the Deputy Director General of the National Economic and Development Authority, one (1) representative from the labor sector, and one (1) representative from the investors/business sector in the ECOZONE. In case of the unavailability of the Secretary of the Department of Trade and Industry to attend a particular board meeting, the Director General of PEZA shall act as Chairman.17

As can be gleaned from above, the members of the Board of Directors was increased from 8 to 13, specifying therein that it is the undersecretaries of the different Departments who should sit as board members of the PEZA. The option of designating his representative to the Board by the different Cabinet Secretaries was deleted. Likewise, the last paragraph as to the payment of per diems to the members of the Board of Directors was also deleted, considering that such stipulation was clearly in conflict with the proscription set by the Constitution.

Prescinding from the above, the petitioner is, indeed, not entitled to receive a per diem for his attendance at board meetings during his tenure as member of the Board of Director of the PEZA.

IN LIGHT OF THE FOREGOING, the petition is DISMISSED. The assailed decision of the COA is AFFIRMED.

SO ORDERED.

Davide, Jr., C.J., Vitug, Ynares-Santiago, Sandoval-Gutierrez, Carpio, Austria-Martinez, Corona, Carpio-Morales, Azcuna, and Tinga, JJ., concur.
Puno, J., on leave.
Panganiban, J., On official leave.
Quisumbing, J., No part, due prior Executive action at DOLE.


Footnotes

1 COA Decision No. 2001-045 signed by Commissioner Celso D. Gangan, Chairman, with Commissioners Emmanuel M. Dalman and Raul C. Flores concurring. Rollo, p. 27.

2 Rollo, p. 98.

3 Annex "A," Rollo, p. 135.

4 Included per Amended Petition.

5 Rollo, pp. 136-138.

6 Id. at 28.

7 194 SCRA 317 (1991).

8 "SECTION 1. Even if allowed by law or by the ordinary functions of his position, a member of the Cabinet, undersecretary or assistant secretary or other appointive officials of the Executive Department may, in addition to his primary position, hold not more than two positions in the government and government corporations and receive the corresponding compensation therefor; Provided, that this limitation shall not apply to ad hoc bodies or committees, or to boards, councils or bodies of which the President is the Chairman.

9 Rollo, p. 141

10 Id. at 51.

11 Id. at 5.

12 371 SCRA 157 (2001).

13 Id. at 164.

14 Aquino v. COMELEC, 248 SCRA 400 (1995).

15 See Garcia v. Mata, 65 SCRA 517 (1975).

16 Enacted on June 1, 1999.

17 Section 1, Republic Act No. 8748.


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