Housing chief confirms Lao subject of extortion rap
An extortion complaint has indeed been filed against former Budget Undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao, but he had left the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLURB) when the agency was informed about it, according to housing chief Eduardo del Rosario.
Speaking on Thursday at the Malacañang press briefing, Del Rosario said he learned about the complaint against Lao in September 2019.
Lao was chief executive officer and commissioner of the HLURB before joining the Department of Budget and Management and being tasked to head its Procurement Service (PS-DBM).He is embroiled in the scandal involving the PS-DBM’s purchase of allegedly overpriced pandemic medical equipment from Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp., an undercapitalized firm whose officials have been linked to financial crimes abroad.
Lao has since resigned from the PS-DBM and is being questioned in a continuing inquiry of the Senate blue ribbon committee. Sen. Panfilo Lacson said he was now holding certain documents incriminating to Lao.
Del Rosario, secretary of the Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development, said that when he was CEO of the housing board, the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) sent him an “anonymous” letter containing the extortion allegation against Lao.
But by that time Lao was already with the DBM, and he told Lao’s staff about the “confidential complaint.”
“And I gave this to the staff of Usec. Lao so that he could be the one to engage with the PACC himself because he was no longer under my jurisdiction at that time,” Del Rosario said.
He said that after informing Lao’s staff about the complaint, he no longer followed up the issue.
Per earlier reports, the alleged extortion racket at the HLURB targeted private housing developers engaged in socialized and low-cost mass housing projects. It supposedly started when Lao issued a memorandum circular that made the approval of the license to sell housing projects very difficult to obtain.
Lacson said Malacañang might have a direct hand in the attempt to cover up the transfer of P42 billion from the Department of Health to the PS-DBM, with no less than President Duterte telling a coequal branch of government to stop investigating the P8.7 billion worth of contracts awarded to Pharmally.
“As far as we’re concerned, because we’re exposed to documents and testimonies, we can already suspect that there is an attempt to cover up. What was Malacañang’s statement? For the Senate to stop its investigations,” Lacson said.
He said the President’s statement itself was “a veiled message, especially to the administration’s allies in the Senate, that the probe should not continue.”
Lacson was referring to statements made by the President in his “Talk to the People” telling senators to desist from looking into ongoing government programs.
“Do not investigate programs which are ongoing. You will derail it; you will delay it by your incessant penchant for investigating government offices,” Mr. Duterte said.
He earlier assailed Lacson and Sen. Richard Gordon, chair of the blue ribbon committee, for the continuing inquiry, saying it was mere “posturing” for the upcoming elections.
The Senate will keep exercising its oversight power over the spending of public funds, Lacson said, adding: “Not one senator can be dictated upon. Not even the President can tell the Senate what to do.”
He said he had urged Gordon to summon documents on the PS-DBM, such as the minutes of the meetings of its bids and awards committee, as well as the income tax returns of firms participating in biddings.
Lacson also said he had gotten hold of documents showing then PS-DBM head Lao asking the Civil Service Commission to reclassify some of his personnel as “confidential employees” — a request that was “fortunately” denied by the commission.
“The question is: Why does a procuring government agency need confidential employees? From that alone, you can see that this is premeditated plunder,” Lacson said, borrowing a phrase coined by Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon.
Sometime in “March or May,” the Food and Drug Administration issued a circular easing requirements for participating bidders, supposedly making it easy for firms like Pharmally to corner P8.7 billion worth of supply contracts for medical supplies, according to Lacson.
“But after Pharmally delivered, the requirements tightened all over again,” he said.
Lacson said the Senate had uncovered “lapses” exposing the corruption involved in the procurement of medical supplies in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But he was quick to clarify that he had not made any judgment based on what was emerging from the Senate inquiry.
“In the absence of evidence, we can only speculate. But if we get someone to testify or get sufficient documents to show who is backing [Pharmally], we can go beyond the realm of speculation,” he said.
Lacson said a witness was willing to testify on the deals involving Pharmally, including the alleged existence of a syndicate in the PS-DBM.
“We haven’t talked to the person yet. He already manifested his intention to fully cooperate,” the senator said, without elaborating.
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