Duterte opts to decide if Cabinet members will face ‘useless’ Senate probe
MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte said he would not allow his Cabinet officials to appear in legislative inquiries if they would just be berated and their time wasted by lawmakers as he continued to criticize the Senate for looking into allegedly overpriced pandemic supplies purchased from a small company with links to one of his longtime friends.
In a taped meeting with members of his Cabinet aired on national television on Tuesday, Mr. Duterte said he was not questioning the legislative authority to investigate but he would limit what the senators could do with members of the executive branch.
He said so many officials had been summoned to Senate hearings but ended up waiting for hours before being questioned and some not being called at all.
“This time I will require every Cabinet member to clear with me any invitation. And if I think that he will be called for a useless purpose … to be berated in front of the Republic, then I will stop it and prohibit him from attending it,” the President said.
The top officials who have so far testified in the inquiry are Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, National Task Force Against COVID-19 chief Carlito Galvez Jr. and acting budget department officer in charge Tina Rose Canda.
The Senate opened its probe on the allegedly irregular transfer of P42 billion in Department of Health (DOH) funds to the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM) and the P8.7 billion worth of contracts bagged in 2020 by the undercapitalized trading company Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp.
From the hearings, senators learned that the total amount transferred to the PS-DBM to purchase pandemic supplies was P47.7 billion and that Pharmally, which had a paid-up capital of only P625,000, cornered around P11.49 billion in contracts in 2020-2021.
The Senate investigations also revealed that Michael Yang, a Chinese national and decadeslong friend of the President who briefly served as his economic adviser, had loaned money to the financially struggling Pharmally. He also introduced Pharmally to his friends in China where the company could get its supplies.
The president said Duque, who had appeared in most of the Senate hearings, “has not been in control of the workings” of the DOH because of so much time he had spent with the senators. Each of the six hearings lasted an average of about six hours.
“I am ordering Secretary Duque that the next time that he is invited, he should clear the invitation to appear with me and I will decide,” he said. “Secretary Duque has answered what he could. What more do they want? Do they want to drag his soul?”
Duterte also defended the purchases from Pharmally, saying the company had fulfilled its obligations and the procurement contracts were in accordance with the powers given to him by the Bayanihan 1 law “for the fastest delivery of the things that we need.”
“You can crumple Pharmally, we don’t care about it,” he added. “What we care about is that we ordered items, these arrived, the order was correct, and the price was negotiated.”
Several senators alleged that the company supplied, among others, overpriced surgical masks, COVID-19 testing kits, and personal protective equipment.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the president’s decision to allow or disallow officials to testify in the hearings was his prerogative as chief executive.
“However, the Senate will exercise our legislative oversight function over government projects and expenditures that we approved,” he said in a Viber message.
Sen. Richard Gordon, who is leading the probe as chair of the Senate blue ribbon committee, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Duterte’s statements.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan said the President’s stance showed his unwillingness to expose irregularities involving his officials.
“If they have nothing to hide, they should face it. If there are truly no anomalies, they shouldn’t be scared of testifying,” he told reporters.
‘A ruckus thing’
Mr. Duterte said he would allow officials to attend if the hearings were reasonable.
“I plead for fairness for the people you summoned because if your style will be like that, I will tell all government personnel, ‘Do not go to the Senate.’ Then it would be a ruckus thing, you will have them arrested. And then I will say, ‘Do not arrest them, do not believe the Senate.’ Then what will happen?” he said.
In January, the President directed the Presidential Security Group to ignore any invitation from the Senate to appear in an inquiry on its acquisition of an unregistered COVID-19 vaccine.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Mr. Duterte could issue an executive order on the attendance of officials in legislative inquiries, guided by a Supreme Court ruling that Cabinet officials should not be cited in contempt for not attending a hearing if ordered by the President.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros said in a statement on Tuesday that the hearings had shown that Pharmally snagged the contracts, even with incomplete documentation and presigned proofs of delivery, with help from the PS-DBM itself.
She cited a testimony by Pharmally incorporator Krizle Mago who told the senators that the company had secured only three of four documents necessary to complete a procurement—a delivery receipt, an inspection and acceptance report of the delivery, and a statement of account of the delivery. It did not have a delivery order, the first document required, but it was still issued a delivery receipt.
“This deal between Pharmally and the PS-DBM is clearly a shortcut to corruption,” Hontiveros said. “Pharmally’s incorporators seem to be naive entrepreneurs, intent on profiteering and making a quick buck, and PS-DBM was a willing enabler.”
She said Mago also testified that the PS-DBM management “compelled them to fake inspection reports needed for the release of the checks.”
‘Scam of the decade’
Bayan Secretary-General Renato Reyes said the Pharmally deals had “the makings of a scam of the decade” that could rival the P10-billion pork barrel scam unearthed by the Inquirer in 2013.
Reyes said there was also “reasonable basis to suspect” that Pharmally was a mere “dummy company” acting as a middleman.
In preventing his officials from testifying in the Senate probe, Duterte was willing to “trigger a constitutional crisis just to cover up the truth,” he said.
“We’re now seeing a more brazen and intense cover-up and outright disrespect to a coequal branch in government,” said Reyes.
Gordon had requested Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra and Bureau of Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente that Yang, Pharmally executives, and former PS-DBM head Lloyd Christopher Lao be placed on a hold-departure order, immigration watch list, or lookout bulletin to monitor any attempt to leave the country.
Yang was absent from Monday’s hearing. His lawyer said his blood pressure had shot up and he was advised by his doctor to stay in bed for five days.
Hontiveros said Yang’s testimony was crucial to piecing together the “big puzzle” in the ties between Pharmally and PS-DBM.
—WITH REPORTS FROM KRIXIA SUBINGSUBING AND INQUIRER RESEARCH
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