Senate President Vicente Sotto III said a hearing on the government’s COVID-19 vaccination program will push through next week, despite a warning from President Rodrigo Duterte to Congress not “to tinker” with the unauthorized inoculation of his bodyguards with an unregistered vaccine.
Sotto said the topic for next week’s hearing was the roadmap for the government’s COVID-19 vaccination program, not the controversy over the early vaccination of members of the Presidential Security Group (PSG).
Sotto bristled when asked if the commander of the PSG would be called to the hearing, as suggested by Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon.
“No, I am the chairman!” he said.
Sotto said there was no change in the original intent of the scheduled Senate hearing and said the President was misinformed if he thought they would summon the PSG officers.
"I’m the chairman of the Committee of the Whole as Senate President.
The topic of my hearing is the roadmap for the P72.5 billion for vaccines. Who in heaven’s name told him I’m calling for the PSG? I think the President is being misled," Sotto said.
Asked if there would be a separate inquiry into the PSG controversy, Sotto shot back: “Who will? What committee? Health? Ask Bong. Defense? Ask Ping,” referring to Senators Christopher Go and Panfilo Lacson, both allies of the President.
On Monday night, Duterte warned Congress not “to tinker” with the PSG personnel over their early use of an unauthorized vaccine against COVID-19.
“I would like to call on Congress—and this is not an appeal. I want to tell you straight: do not tinker with the PSG. I’m telling you as President it’s a matter of self-preservation,” he said in his taped speech.
He said he was “not keen” on allowing PSG commander Brig. Jesus Durante III and other personnel to face Congress to explain how the vaccine doses were procured and who supplied them.
“If they will be called to testify in Congress… I will just tell…to just shut up. Do not answer,” the President said.
“Do not force my soldiers to testify against their will. And don’t cite them in contempt and detain them. I do not think it will be good for you and for me. It would not be healthy for everybody,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino.
Duterte said if Congress decides to proceed with the inquiry, something “nasty” would transpire.
He insisted that his close-in security detail had “good intentions” and he would not allow them to be “brutalized” in a congressional hearing.
He also said he would order Durante not to obey any summons from Congress.
“I am ordering you to stay put in the barracks,” he said.
The President issued the statement after Drilon said Durante should be summoned to a Senate inquiry on the government’s vaccination plan.
Drilon on Tuesday said the President can invoke executive privilege to prevent Durante from appearing before Congress, but he had no power to stop Congress from performing its constitutionally mandated duty to investigate in aid of legislation the entry and use of illegal and unauthorized COVID-19 vaccines.
“The President, in effect, is invoking executive privilege, which is a recognized power of the President,” Drilon said. “But to investigate in aid of legislation is also a valid exercise of legislative power.
There is no preventing Congress from eliciting information in aid of legislation from other resource persons. Congress can exact information on matters that can help it craft better legislation.”
“The Senate should continue with the hearing, especially in the light of the revelation that 100,000 POGO workers were inoculated in the country. That is illegal. In aid of legislation, the Senate must elicit information from other sources on how to strengthen the FDA and the Bureau of Customs to prevent similar episodes in the future,” he said.
Congress’s power of inquiry is expressly recognized in Section 21 of Article VI of the Constitution which states that “the Senate or the House of Representatives or any of its respective committees may conduct inquiries in aid of legislation in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure. The rights of persons appearing in or affected by such inquiries shall be respected.”
Senator Francis Pangilinan said it would be up to the Senate whether or not to focus on the controversial vaccination of the PSG members.
"What’s important to me is to ensure that the vaccine rollout should be orderly, fair, safe and effective and find out if the government is indeed prepared for it," he said.
Senator Risa Hontiveros said it is the government’s responsibility to crack down on the COVID-19 vaccine black market.
Since COVID-19 is the most real threat in this pandemic, she noted that an unsafe and unauthorized vaccine could make this pandemic worse than it already is. "Whoever is involved in this black market should be put behind bars,” she said.
She added that Customs and the FDA should be on high alert for vaccine smuggling. It is the responsibility of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III to mobilize the agencies under him to guard against and put an end to the vaccine black market, she said.
Despite the President’s warning to Congress, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the National Bureau of Investigation would proceed with its probe of the reported unauthorized use of vaccines against COVID-19.
“The NBI investigation will proceed as planned,” Guevarra said in a message to reporters.
Guevarra pointed out that the mission of the NBI is “to investigate the alleged proliferation of unregistered anti-COVID 19 vaccines and their unauthorized administration in the so-called black market.”
“The agency has several sources of information other than the PSG,” Guevarra said.
On Monday, Jan. 4, Guevarra issued Department Order No. 314 which instructed the NBI to conduct an investigation on the reported importation, sale, offering for sale, distribution, administration, and inoculation of COVID-19 vaccines that are not authorized by or registered with the FDA, and if warranted, to file the appropriate charges against the people involved.
Malacañang said it is up to the NBI and the FDA to pursue their investigation into the PSG’s use of unauthorized vaccine shots against COVID-19.
But the Armed Forces of the Philippines called off its investigation after Duterte prohibited the PSG personnel from divulging details about the vaccination before Congress.
Roque said the investigation by the executive agencies may continue, saying, “We expect the PSG to appear and cooperate with the NBI or FDA.”
A leader of the House of Representatives on Tuesday urged government investigative agencies to focus on those responsible for smuggling in the vaccines.
Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert Ace Barbers, chairman of the House committee on dangerous drugs, said the smugglers of the vaccines, developed by a Chinese-state-owned pharmaceutical company, could also be the ones who reportedly “donated” the same drug to some 300 members of the PSG, who claimed to have inoculated themselves.