Ombudsman’s probe of PAO chief to cover anonymous lawyers’ plea
The Office of the Ombudsman on Friday said it had started a preliminary investigation of the corruption allegations against Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) chief Persida Rueda-Acosta and PAO forensic laboratory head Erwin Erfe.
“The corruption allegations against the high-ranking PAO officials will be judiciously scrutinized and the cases shall be resolved solely on the basis of the evidence presented by the parties,” Ombudsman Samuel Martires said in a statement.
The corruption complaint alleged that Acosta and Erfe violated at least two provisions of Republic Act No. 3019, or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, aside from falsification, malversation and illegal use of public funds and property.
The two officials also face administrative charges for grave misconduct, serious dishonesty, grave abuse of authority and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service.
Lawyer Wilfredo Garrido filed the original complaint against Acosta and Erfe in October 2018.
The announcement of the preliminary investigation came a week after a group claiming to be PAO lawyers urged Martires to suspend both Acosta and Erfe, saying that the pair through their “cohorts” in the agency’s financial planning and management service have a “systematic scheme” for covering up traces of their alleged corrupt practices, particularly those related to the use of the PAO budget.
The lawyers did not identify themselves in the statement for fear of reprisal, but Martires confirmed that the investigation would include their manifestation, a copy of which was obtained by the Inquirer on Wednesday this week.
Acosta on Friday, however, asked Martires to dismiss the graft complaint against her and to strike from the Ombudsman’s records the anonymous manifestation.
‘Manifesto’ vs ‘fake news’
In her pleading, Acosta also said the Inquirer report on the PAO lawyers’ statement backing the corruption case was “fake news” and “a demolition job and black propaganda, which is an affront to the independence and integrity of the PAO.”
She also submitted a “manifesto” by more than 100 lawyers from the PAO central office in Quezon City denying any role in the anonymous lawyers’ statement.
“Obviously, the manifestation was fabricated by someone else; unscrupulous person/s who resort to shady schemes and strategies to advance their personal cause,” according to the manifesto signed by 106 PAO lawyers. “It is a demolition job; an affront to the independence and integrity of the PAO.”
The statement said “desperate persons” were “employing deceit and dragging otherwise innocent persons in their devious plan to tarnish the reputation of the PAO by using falsified documents.”
However, one of the PAO lawyers who signed the manifesto told the Inquirer that it was prepared by Acosta’s close aides and already had their names printed on it for their signature.
The lawyer, who helped prepare the manifestation against Acosta and Erfe, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Acosta also gave out cash gifts of up to P10,000 to the PAO lawyers on Thursday, the PAO chief’s birthday, after news of the lawyers’ manifestation broke out, the lawyer said.
Asked to comment, Acosta said in a text message to the Inquirer: “That’s another fake news that you are again using. Fear God.”
In his original complaint, Garrido accused Acosta and Erfe of creating the PAO forensic laboratory without legislative authorization.
In their Aug. 8 manifestation to intervene in the corruption case by Garrido, the PAO lawyers alleged that Acosta was at the center of “entrenched” corruption at the agency, since she had allegedly placed loyal staffers in the finance service that released the agency’s budget for her personal use. The lawyers also sought Acosta and Erfe’s immediate preventive suspension.
Among the accusations levied against Acosta were her alleged placement of “loyal certified public accountants” in the PAO’s finance department, so that they could rubber stamp requests for additional budget releases disguised as purchase orders for additional office supplies.
Acosta also allegedly “ambulance chases” families of children who had died after receiving the dengue vaccine Dengvaxia, coercing them to seek the PAO’s help in pursuing their cases.
Acosta and Erfe also allegedly used PAO funds to purchase tarpaulins, T-shirts and coffins that the parents used in rallies, the lawyers said.
A day after the manifestation of the PAO lawyers was made public, Garrido called on President Duterte to sack Acosta if the Ombudsman will not suspend her.
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said Mr. Duterte would not interfere in the Ombudsman’s investigation. “We will let the law take its course,” he said. —WITH REPORTS FROM JEROME ANING AND JULIE M. AURELIO
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