Four former health secretaries have rallied behind medical groups calling on President Rodrigo Duterte to lift the ban on Cabinet officials from attending the Senate probe into the alleged misuse of multibillion-peso COVID-19 response funds.
Former Health Secretaries Carmencita Reodica, Manuel Dayrit, Enrique Ona Jr, and Esperanza Cabral signed the statement asking Duterte not to “obstruct” Senate Blue Ribbon Committee investigations into the alleged overpriced purchase of personal protective equipment by ordering Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and other government officials to snub the Senate inquiry.
Two lawyers’ groups — the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and the Philippine Bar Associate — have also urged the President to recall his memorandum.
But the Office of the Solicitor General defended the legality of Duterte’s decision to enjoin Cabinet members and other officials of the Executive department from appearing before the Senate inquiry into the multi-billion-peso purchases of medical supplies as response to the coronavirus disease pandemic.
The OSG stressed that the ongoing hearings by the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee were “not in aid of legislation” because there is no specific legislative measure that needs enactment by Congress.
“For one, there is no reference to a clear and specific piece of legislation that the investigation seeks to aid. For another, the questions propounded during the hearings do not appear to be relative to and in furtherance of any piece of legislation,” the OSG said, in a statement.
“On the contrary, during the hearings, the Senators grill and treat the resource persons worse than criminals. Their obvious intent is to identify persons accountable for alleged irregularities which existing laws already penalize,” it added.
Dr. Paulyn Ubial, Duterte’s first DOH chief, has also committed that she would join the call.
Other signatories included ex-health undersecretaries and doctors Suzy Pineda, Juan Pablo Nañagas, and Madeleine de Rosas-Valera, and the Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines, among others.
The Philippine College of Physicians, including its past presidents, signed a strongly worded letter of indignation and call to action addressed to the government.
“The PCP, past presidents, and other people who have signed the statement think that the President is actually obstructing the investigation,” said Cabral.
Maricar Limpin, president of PCP, assailed the President’s memorandum prohibiting officials and employees of the executive from attending the Blue Ribbon hearings presided by its chairman Sen. Richard Gordon.
Limpin stressed that everybody deserved to know the truth and they would reject all efforts for a cover-up.
Meanwhile, Limpin and Dr. Tony Leachon, former PCP president, lamented the Philippine Medical Association had not supported their protest. Full story on manilastandard.net.
“There is apathy and lack of proactive measures from the mother org,” Limpin said, adding she remained hopeful the PMA would stand with them in their fight.
“If they don’t recognize there is a problem and turn a blind eye, then you are an accomplice to perpetuating a crime,” Leachon said.
Dr. Eugene Ramos, a former PCP president, said the letter personally signed by hundreds of leading physicians in the country was a big deal since doctors typically would not engage in protests related to politics so they could focus on their duties.
“But this time, silence is no longer an option, “ he said.
“Doctors are fuming but we still want to help if we can fix this. We are speaking up now,” he said.
Another former PCP president, Dr. Vicente Tanseco Jr., said the medical professionals would not take it sitting down.
“We have been quiet for the longest time. But we are speaking up now because our conscience can no longer take it,” he said.
Dr. Norberto Lingling Uy said Duterte should be the first one to launch a probe or order his officials to attend investigations if his priority is to uncover possible anomalies in the handling of pandemic funds or if his number one priority are the Filipinos and their well-being.
Health professionals said they were outraged and frustrated by corruption claims surrounding government pandemic spending, adding it was “sickening to hear that there are people who may have exploited the situation.”
Last week, Duterte signed a memorandum directing members of the Cabinet to ignore summons of the Blue Ribbon Committee. He said such a request from the panel hampers the government’s pandemic response since key officials will have to attend the hearings that usually last for a whole day.
The OSG noted there were laws that provide for the manner of their prosecution and conviction which, pursuant to the Constitution and doctrine of separation of powers, “are within the domain of the Executive and Judiciary, not province of the Senate.”
Because of this, the President “had to prevent the Senate from intruding into matters that fall within the jurisdiction of the courts or the prosecuting agencies of the Executive Department to avert an impending constitutional crisis.”
The OSG made the statement after retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio who criticized the President’s directive barring his Cabinet officials from attending the Senate Blue Ribbon committee hearing on alleged overpriced purchase of medical supplies.
In his column, Carpio stressed that the SC unanimously ruled in the 2006 landmark case of Senate vs Ermita that “when the inquiry in which Congress requires their appearance is ‘in aid of legislation’ xxx, the appearance is mandatory xxx.”
The former SC magistrate also said that the only ground that the President can invoke in barring Cabinet members and executive officials is through executive privilege when the subject of the inquiry involves national security, military, or diplomatic secrets, or to conversations and correspondences between the President and his Cabinet members or executive officials.
According to the chief state lawyer, the President’s directive was consistent with the 2006 SC ruling.
“Assuming these hearings are being conducted in aid of legislation, there is nothing in Ermita that categorically declares the lack of power of the President to bar his Cabinet members and other executive officials from attending Senate inquiries,” the OSG said.
“Apart from matters involving national security, military, or diplomatic secrets, department heads are likewise exempt from such appearance on the ground of ‘deliberative process privilege,” it added.
The OSG emphasized that the deliberations among the President, Department of Health Secretary, and Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases on these procurements were considered privileged communications.
“These form part of the executive privilege that ‘attach[es] […] to deliberations comprising part of a process by which governmental decisions and policies are formulated,’” the chief state lawyer said.
In a memorandum dated last Oct. 4, the President directed all officials and employees of the executive department to no longer appear before the hearings of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee “effective immediately.”