MANILA, Philippines — The Office of the Ombudsman has suspended its second most senior graft buster along with 32 former and present officials of the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM) and the Department of Health (DOH) for their involvement in the graft-tainted purchases of the government’s pandemic supplies in 2020 and 2021.
Ombudsman Samuel Martires meted out a six-month suspension order on Overall Deputy Ombudsman Warren Rex Liong, who was then the PS-DBM’s procurement group director, and his fellow respondents following a complaint filed by Sen. Risa Hontiveros and former Sen. Richard Gordon.
Gordon, then chair of the blue ribbon committee, spearheaded the Senate inquiry two years ago into the graft-tainted supply contracts awarded to Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp., a startup company with a paid-up capital of only P625,000 that bagged more than P11.5 billion worth of government healthcare supply contracts at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“After a careful evaluation of the records, this office finds compelling reasons to place the respondents under preventive suspension pending investigation of the instant case,” said Martires in an order dated March 20, a copy of which was obtained by the Inquirer on Wednesday.
“The overwhelming documentary proof shows that respondents’ evidence of guilt is strong,” he said.
Aside from Liong, who was appointed to his present post by former President Rodrigo Duterte in November 2020, also suspended without pay were Health Assistant Secretary Nestor Santiago Jr. and former Budget Undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao, who headed the PS-DBM when Pharmally secured the multibillion-peso contracts.
The PS-DBM officials named in the suspension order were:
- Christine Marie L. Suntay
- Fatimah Amsha A. Peñaflor
- Joshua S. Laure
- Earvin Jay I. Alparaque
- Julius M. Santos
- Paul Jasper V. de Guzman
- Dickson T. Panti
- Karen Anne Requintina
- Rodevie Cruz
- Webster Laureñana
- Sharon Baile
- Gerelyn F. Vergara
- Abelardo Gonzales
- Jez Charlemagne Arago
- Nicole John Cabueños
- Ray-ann V. Sorilla
- Chamel Fiji C. Melo
- Allan Raul M. Catalan
- Mervin Ian D. Tanquintic
- Jorge L. Mendoza III
- Jasonmer L. Uayan
- August M. Ylangan
The suspended DOH officers were:
- Crispinita A. Valdez
- Amado Tandoc
- Lei Lanna Dancel
- Dave Tangcalagan
- Jhobert Bernal
- Kenneth Aristotle P. Punzalan
- Rose Marasigan
- Maria Carmela Reyes
A source, who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity, said the suspension order was already served by the Ombudsman on Liong and the other respondents on Wednesday.
The case for grave misconduct, gross neglect of duty, serious dishonesty, and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service specifically covered the procurement of 51,400 units of COVID-19 testing kits.
According to Martires, the seriousness of the allegations against them “would warrant removal from the service.”
“Indubitably, respondents’ continued stay in office may prejudice the case filed against them,” the Ombudsman said. “Hence, to enable this office to conduct an unhampered investigation and to prevent the use of position, power, prerogatives, and possible influence over potential witnesses or tamper vital records, (the respondents)… are hereby placed under preventive suspension without pay for a period of six months.”
Gordon, who failed in his reelection bid in the May 2022 elections, had rued the decision of the majority of his colleagues not to sign the report of the Senate’s antigraft panel, which recommended the prosecution of Duterte for betrayal of public trust for supposedly protecting those behind the anomalies.
The committee report said Duterte should be held liable for designating Michael Yang, a Chinese national suspected of being the real owner of Pharmally, as an economic adviser in 2018.
It said Yang facilitated the transactions involving several Chinese suppliers and “in the process enriched himself immensely.”
“As the Senate investigation unfolded, revealing the participation of well-placed officials in government, [Duterte] took the surprising position of undermining the ongoing proceedings,” the report said.
The Senate investigation was triggered by the transfer of about P42 billion in the DOH’s pandemic response funds, which was flagged by the Commission on Audit (COA) for lack of supporting documents.
The blue ribbon panel zeroed in on allegations of corruption in the P11.5 billion worth of contracts for pandemic supplies won by Pharmally, most of which was coursed through the PS-DBM then headed by Lao.
The committee said the acts of “malfeasance, misfeasance, and/or non-feasance” by government officials in cahoots with Pharmally officers were consummated “under the nose of the President.”
“The amounts involved in the dirty transactions were enormous, producing a stench that would have been impossible to ignore in Malacañang,” it said.
“The President as Chief Executive should have known what his appointees and friends were doing,” the Gordon panel said.
“If he did not know prior to the Senate investigation, then it certainly came to his attention when the hearings were underway, and instead of investigating the matter or supporting any such investigation, he chose to defend and protect those closest to him who had dipped their fingers into the coffers of the nation,” it added.
The committee report endorsed plunder cases against then Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, Lao, and Liong, as well as Pharmally executives led by its Singaporean president and chair Huang Tzu Yen and Filipino executives Linconn Ong, Mohit Dargani, Twinkle Dargani, and Krizle Grace Mago; Yang, who is based in Davao City and was said to be Pharmally’s guarantor and financier, and his close associate Lin Weixiong.
The panel recommended graft and corruption charges against all of them.
The report also sought Yang’s deportation over his alleged offenses, including tax evasion.