DOJ chief to help defuse Palace-Senate conflict over Pharmally probe
MANILA, Philippines — Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Wednesday said he was willing to help resolve a conflict between Malacañang and the Senate over an ongoing investigation of allegedly irregular purchase contracts for pandemic supplies by reviewing a presidential directive preventing officials from participating in the inquiry.
During a Senate hearing on the budget of the Department of Justice (DOJ), Guevarra told senators he would be “honored to discuss the matter” with Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, who was directed by President Rodrigo Duterte to issue a memorandum ordering Cabinet members not to attend future Senate blue ribbon committee hearings.
He was responding to a request by Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, who is a member of the blue ribbon panel chaired by Sen. Richard Gordon, on whether the justice secretary could review the “blatantly unconstitutional” Oct. 4 memo.
Guevarra, however, said that resolving a conflict was a “two-way thing.”
“It requires adjustments on both sides,” he said. “If I may say, we’re willing to make arrangements. We hope on the part of the blue ribbon, it can make adjustments. We need mutual reciprocal efforts.”
Guevarra did not say what these “arrangements” or “adjustments” might be.
Drilon said the “two-way” exchange was “reasonable” but that he couldn’t speak for the whole committee.
“I will strongly endorse such a suggestion to come up with a reasonable solution because I don’t want to go to the Supreme Court. It’s in that sense that we hope we don’t have to go back to the Supreme Court,” he said.
When Drilon was Senate president in 2005, senators challenged a similar executive order from then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the Supreme Court. In April 2006, the court decided largely in favor of the Senate, ruling that Cabinet members must attend Senate inquiries in aid of legislation.
The court said officials must provide the information sought by lawmakers, except in regard to executive privilege, which refers to matters involving national security, military or diplomatic secrets, or their conversations and correspondences with the president.
Gordon has been insisting that such matters were not being touched in the ongoing inquiry and the President was creating a “constitutional crisis” by preventing a coequal branch of the government from performing its duties, particularly its oversight function.
The blue ribbon panel is looking into the allegedly irregular transfer of at least P42 billion in pandemic response funds from the Department of Health (DOH) to the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM).
The inquiry is now focused on Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. which was awarded P11.5 billion worth of contracts despite being undercapitalized. Several senators said the trading company sold overpriced face shields and masks, personal protective equipment, and COVID-19 test kits to the PS-DBM and the DOH in 2020 and 2021.
The country’s largest lawyers’ group, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), urged Congress and Malacañang to work together against graft and corruption at all levels of the government.
“It is imperative for our government to fight corruption, wherever it may be, and to assist, rather than obstruct, any investigation that seeks to identify the root of corruption and the perpetrators behind them,” the IBP said. “A transparent government is one of the hallmarks of a truly republican state.”
Earlier, the Philippine Bar Association, the country’s oldest lawyers’ organization, blasted Mr. Duterte for issuing an order “detrimental to our people exacting public accountability from (the) officials of the executive department.”
The IBP also urged the President to respect the 2006 Supreme Court ruling.
“It is only by granting our Congress free access to information that we can empower them to formulate policies that fully reflect the will of our people,” it said.
‘Cripple’ admin efforts
Presidential legal adviser Salvador Panelo said the attendance of government officials in the Senate hearings was starting to “cripple” the administration’s efforts to fight the COVID-19 public health emergency.
“Faced between the choice of one, accommodating the whims and caprices of a senatorial despot — who would seek to make the world his stage until kingdom come — and two, actually performing genuine public service that directly relates to the general welfare of the Filipino people, the choice is obvious,” he said.
Gordon has been called a despot by Duterte.
The Senate has held only 11 hearings averaging six hours each over the past 48 days since they opened the inquiry on Aug. 18.
A similar inquiry by the good government and public accountability committee of the House of Representatives has held four hearings starting on Sept. 15, each lasting about five hours.
Gordon said he would have a preliminary report ready by next week.
The House panel chair, Diwa Rep. Michael Edgar Aglipay, said his committee is expected to finish its report in two months.
“I assured the public, the committee will be fair, balanced and legal. We will take everything legally,” Aglipay said.
—WITH REPORTS FROM JEROME ANING, MARLON RAMOS AND JULIE M. AURELIO
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