By Benjamin Pulta

Supreme Court (PNA file photo)

MANILA – The Supreme Court upheld the Commission on Audit (COA) ruling declaring illegal the 2008 car plan scheme implemented by the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) for its officials.

The Court, however, found the officials of PhilRice not liable to refund PHP10.4 million to the government, representing the expenses incurred during the implementation of the car plan.

“Here, while petitioners approved and authorized the payment of government funds in violation of Section 12 of R.A. No. 6758 [Compensation and Position Classification Act], nevertheless, the exceptional circumstances surrounding the case, tenaciously show they acted in good faith and were solely propelled by a valid and genuine cause — the prevention of brain drain within the institute through a more cost-effective approach,” the Court said in its March 14 resolution.

Under the plan, qualified officials and employees procured private vehicles of their choice through the financing scheme of the Philippine National Bank.

The scheme operated as a rental plan where the vehicles were rented out to PhilRice for use in the operations, with the rental payments used to pay for the vehicles.

In 2013, the COA issued 26 notices of disallowances (NDs) citing irregularities in the car plan.

The 18 petitioners in the SC suit claimed the NDs would result in unjust enrichment in favor of the government at their expense, considering that they shouldered the cost of the vehicle, fuel, oil, maintenance expenses and comprehensive premiums for all the official travels of PhilRice during the implementation of the car rental plan.

In 2020, the COA Commission Proper overruled the PhilRice officials’ claim that they acted in good faith when they availed of the car plan from 2009 to 2011, and that requiring them to refund the disallowed sum is tantamount to unjust enrichment on the part of the government.

The COA noted that, in effect, the lease transaction covers a period of three years, which is a violation of Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Circular No. 446-95 that requires prior clearance from the DBM secretary when a motor vehicle rental exceeds 15 days.

Likewise, it gave no credence to the respondents’ argument that the car scheme was a means to save the agency the cost of acquiring vehicles and maintaining the fleet. (PNA)