Despite DOJ plea, Duterte keeps Cabinet officials off Senate probe of Pharmally
MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte was unyielding in his order banning all executive officials from taking part in the Senate blue ribbon committee inquiry on alleged irregularities in the government’s procurement of pandemic supplies from Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. and other companies, senators were told on Wednesday.
During deliberations on the budget of the Department of Justice (DOJ), Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra informed the Senate that he was rebuffed by the president when he tried to initiate a review of Malacañang’s controversial Oct. 4 memorandum imposing the ban.
Senate leaders earlier petitioned the Supreme Court to strike down the directive issued by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea on behalf of the president for being unconstitutional.
“Yes, your honor, the [justice] secretary discussed this with the executive secretary a number of times, and the executive secretary said the president was standing firm on his directive to all executive officials to no longer attend” the committee hearings, Senate finance chair Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara said in response to queries from Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon.
For future presidents
Guevarra was present during Wednesday’s session, but Senate rules do not allow resource persons to address the chamber directly. Instead, it’s the senator-sponsor who defends the agency budget and answers questions for them.
The DOJ chief “welcomed” the Senate’s move to challenge the legality of the order in the Supreme Court.
In response, Drilon said: “If left unchallenged, future presidents may issue similar directives.”
The Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered Medialdea to answer the petition in 30 days.
According to Guevarra, the Office of the President (OP) received a copy of the petition and would forward it to Solicitor General Jose Calida, who would reply “in due time.”
On Nov. 11, the Senate petitioned the Supreme Court to nullify the president’s ban on Cabinet secretaries and other executive officials from continuing to participate in the ongoing inquiry into how the pandemic response funds of the Department of Health (DOH) were spent.
Waste of time
The blue ribbon inquiry opened in August and the officials had been attending its hearings until the president started to criticize the investigation led by panel chair Sen. Richard Gordon and finally ordered Cabinet members to stop participating in it.
Duterte reasoned that the officials’ time was being wasted and they could no longer focus on the more pressing problems created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The petition said the memorandum was “patently unconstitutional and in utter defiance” of the high court’s 2006 ruling that the executive should not issue any directive that would “frustrate” the power of Congress to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation.
The 81-page petition cited the P77 billion allocated to fight the pandemic. It said lawmakers, along with health-care workers and other Filipinos, had the constitutional right to inquire into how that large sum was spent.
Spurred by COA report
The Senate inquiry was triggered by a Commission on Audit (COA) report of alleged irregularities in the use of DOH pandemic response funds, including the transfer of at least P42 billion to the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM) without the required documentation.
Senators later found that the undercapitalized Pharmally bagged the largest chunk of contracts, which was worth P11.5 billion, to provide the DOH with pandemic supplies including face masks and shields, personal protective equipment, and COVID-19 test kits in 2020 and 2021.
The PS-DBM, then under Lloyd Christopher Lao, a former budget undersecretary, contracted Pharmally on behalf of the DOH.
The Gordon panel has since unearthed several alleged irregularities with Pharmally’s contracts, including findings that some batches of the face shields were substandard and with tampered production dates, test kits nearly expired when delivered and inspection reports of the goods falsified.
Senators also learned that Michael Yang, Duterte’s Chinese friend and former economic adviser, was allegedly Pharmally’s financial backer. Yang has denied that.
In a partial report, the committee recommended criminal charges against Yang, Lao, and his former colleagues in the PS-DBM, and Pharmally president Twinkle Dargani and her brother, Mohit Dargani, the company secretary and treasurer.
The siblings were declared in contempt of the Senate and ordered arrested for refusing to submit documents on their transactions with the government.
Lao has gone into hiding after he was ordered arrested by the blue ribbon panel on Nov. 5 for consecutive unexcused absences at the hearings.
The Darganis were arrested on Sunday at the Davao City airport before they could board a chartered jet to fly to Singapore.
Visit from lawyer
A lawyer for the siblings, Daryl Ritchie Valles, suspiciously tried to hide the fact that he had worked at the Office of the Special Assistant to the President, formerly occupied by Sen. Bong Go, when he visited his clients on Tuesday, according to Gordon.
“He (Valles) denied being from Malacañang though he admitted he was from Davao,” the senator said.
Before leaving the Senate, Valles admitted he had worked in Malacañang but had resigned in February.
Gordon said he could not understand why Valles needed “subterfuge.”
“Here, the attempt to hide a fact raises more questions as a result,” the senator said.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, the acting presidential spokesperson, confirmed that Valles worked in the OP and resigned on March 1. The statement did not say when the lawyer started working there.
Go: Make arrests if…
In a statement, Go said he resigned as the president’s special assistant in 2018 and had not worked with anyone from his former office since becoming a senator.
“As PRRD (Duterte) and I have repeatedly said, if anybody committed a crime, they should be arrested, charged, and made accountable immediately,” he added.
Pharmally director Linconn Ong, who was also cited for contempt for his supposed evasive and contradictory statements, has been detained in a Senate holding cell since September.
The company’s regulatory officer, Krizle Grace Mago, has left the protective custody of the House of Representatives where she sought refuge after testifying at the Senate that soiled face shields and those with tampered dates of manufacture were delivered to the DOH.
She recanted that statement in a House hearing, saying she had made a “pressured response.”
Diwa Rep. Michael Aglipay, chair of the House good government and public accountability panel, told reporters that Mago left on Monday after staying in the House for one month and two weeks.
—WITH REPORTS FROM JULIE M. AURELIO AND MARLON RAMOS
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.