Duterte finds House backers in resistance to Senate panel’s Pharmally probe
MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte found on Wednesday members of the House of Representatives who supported his attacks against senators investigating the allegedly irregular transfer of at least P42 billion pesos from the Department of Health (DOH) to the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM).
A leading member of the House said some senators wanted to “destroy our President” as several other proadministration congressmen questioned the ongoing Senate investigation of the fund transfer to purchase allegedly overpriced pandemic supplies from Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp., a small trading company that won P8.7 billion worth of supply contracts.
Dragged into controversy
Diwa Rep. Michael Aglipay, chair of the House good government and public accountability panel, said he was “sad” that Duterte and his longtime friend, Michael Yang, a Chinese national who served briefly as presidential economic adviser, had been dragged into the controversy and linked to drugs.
The president had strongly criticized the Senate investigation led by blue ribbon committee chair Sen. Richard Gordon and defended Yang’s involvement with Pharmally. He said earlier this week that he would not allow his Cabinet officials to testify in the Senate inquiry if they would only be berated and their time wasted.
“We must give due respect to the Commander in Chief and to our President, and I take offense in the Senate, so impetuous that Mr. Michael Yang is beside the President and Mr. Michael Yang is a drug lord,” Aglipay said.
Dismissed police officer Eduardo Acierto had implicated Yang in the illegal drug trade in 2018, but the president himself cleared the Chinese businessman, saying he had known him for 20 years.
Aglipay invited Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency Director General Wilkins Villanueva to Wednesday’s hearing to deny allegations that Yang was involved in the drug trade.
“I am sad that the hearings are supposed to be about the Department of Health, DBM, but shifted to drugs,” Aglipay said. “So, I had to resort and invite you [Villanueva] to counter what the Senate is doing to destroy our President. Because they are doing it, might as well put here in the other matters to rebut their theory.”
Michael Aguinaldo, chair of the Commission on Audit (COA) told the hearing that there were no findings of overpricing of pandemic supplies, but that the PS-DBM was called out for its lapses in inventory management that resulted in slow-moving supplies that remained unsold by the end of 2020.
Rhodora Ugay, supervising auditor for the DOH, pointed out that the COA already clarified that the audit report did not say anything about finding corruption.
No COA believer?
House Deputy Speaker and Sagip Rep. Rodante Marcoleta questioned the Senate blue ribbon committee’s insistence in pushing its probe.
“If Chair Aguinaldo said there were no findings of overpricing, what would be the reason for the ongoing hearings in the other chamber?” he said. “Does this mean that the Senate blue ribbon committee does not believe in the COA’s findings?”
“This is the conclusion here: Because the hearings are ongoing, they, particularly the blue ribbon committee, do not believe the COA,” Marcoleta said.
Former PS-DBM chief Lloyd Christopher Lao and former director for procurement Warren Rex Liong said all the transactions between the agency and Pharmally and other suppliers were aboveboard.
Liong, now a deputy ombudsman, said Pharmally’s face masks were not overpriced at P27.72 as it was below the DOH’s ceiling price of P28 for face masks in March 2020.
Pharmally, he added, had supplies on hand and was able to deliver as early as March 2020, way ahead of local suppliers like EMS Components Assembly Inc.
Liong said the P1,910 price per PPE set the PS-DBM bought from Pharmally was “reasonable” at the time.
In response to findings in the Senate probe that Pharmally’s papers were not in order and the company allegedly gave a false address, Liong said the only requirements PS-DBM needed were a mayor’s permit, an income tax return, omnibus sworn statements and the compliance with technical specifications.
“Even in regular competitive bidding, the general information sheet is not required. It is not even required to visit the official address of the corporation under regular bidding,” Liong said.
The Bayanihan 1 law allowed the president to make procurements in an “expeditious manner” by exempting emergency purchases from complying with Republic Act No. 9184, or the Government Procurement Reform Act.
Lao added that Pharmally was not the top government supplier for face masks and PPE in 2020.
Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., chief implementer of the National Task Force Against COVID-19 (NTF), pointed out that while the government used military planes to fly in PPE sets from China, it was Pharmally that delivered these to various ports in Manila, Cagayan de Oro City, Davao City and Cebu City.
Marcoleta and Aglipay asked if the PS-DBM favored any particular supplier, such as Chinese companies, while leaving out local suppliers.
Galvez: Docs were dying
“No, we did not favor anyone. At the start of the pandemic our supply was low so we had to go to China directly since most of the face masks are from China,” Liong said.
He said no influential person, like Sen. Bong Go or any Malacañang official, pushed the PS-DBM to award contracts to Pharmally.
Galvez maintained he, too, did not favor any supplier. “The President told me to secure supplies. He said, it’s up to you, as long as you produce the PPE, because I told him that 17 doctors died,” Galvez said.
In earlier testimonies, he said the authorities were frantically looking for PPE when 37 doctors and nurses had already died, making that around late June.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III also said the transactions were aboveboard.
“If we waited for the prices to drop, then many health workers would have fallen sick, gotten intubated or even died. We had to act fast,” Duque said.
Other lawmakers remarked that the Senate was just wasting the time of Duque and Galvez in its hearings.
Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay Jr. said Duque and Galvez should be commended rather than hated.
House transportation panel chair and Samar Rep. Edgar Mary Sarmiento said parties who have evidence should just file charges in the proper forum, such as the Ombudsman or the Sandiganbayan.
He was supported by Zamboanga City Rep. Cesar Jimenez Jr. who said people with evidence of wrongdoing should file a case “instead of engaging in a trial by publicity.”
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