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The cat’s out of the bag

"Duterte’s remarks betray an appalling misunderstanding of checks and balances in a  democratic system of government."

 

By his own admission, it was President Rodrigo Duterte himself who authorized that public bidding be dispensed with in the case of the controversial purchase of P8.9 billion worth of supplies for COVID-19 response—face masks, face shields, personal protective equipment and test kits—since it was done during a medical emergency.  

Of course, that argument may be valid as far as government procurement rules are concerned, as the nation really faces a medical emergency due to the coronavirus. But the issue at hand is not the manner by which the purchase was conducted. It was the gross overprice that attended the deal.

From what we’ve gathered in the course of the ongoing probe by the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, the presidential imprimatur to go ahead with the multi-billion purchase sans public bidding opened the floodgates to overpricing that we can only guess took place under cover of darkness. Or perhaps, more plausibly, under the table, between  the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and the Department of Health (DOH), on the one hand, and on the other, Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. This company is said to have been established with a measly P625,000 as paid-up capital in 2019.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon believes that the overpricing of COVID-19 supplies “seems to have been planned. If there is premeditated murder, here, we have premeditated plunder. For me, (given) the pandemic, this is treachery.”

Sen. Richard Gordon, chair of the committee leading the probe, likewise sees “corruption” in the transactions.

Besides, there’s the fact-checking that Sen. Risa Hontiveros did that uncovered connections between “shady” individuals and Pharmally that bagged the contracts to supply pandemic-related goods that senators insist were really overpriced.    Citing public records, Hontiveros said the chairman of Pharmally International Holdings is wanted in Taiwan for alleged securities fraud, stock manipulation, and embezzlement. A relative of this person who is an incorporator of Pharmally is also wanted for stock manipulation.

Video  footage shown in the Senate hearing showed Pharmally officials being personally introduced to President Duterte in March 2017 by his former adviser on economic affairs, Michael Yang.    

It is unfortunate that amid damning evidence of corruption, Duterte has asked senators to refrain from investigating  ongoing programs of government agencies as this tends to “muddle up” and cause delays in implementation.

“Do not investigate programs which are ongoing. You will derail it, you will delay it by your incessant penchant for investigating government offices...You want to stick your nose into everything. You’re not running this government alone. If it is not stolen, why are you asking? The money is there, it is unspent, nobody’s stealing it, it’s there,” he fumed.

Earlier, Duterte also slammed what he described as “posturing” by senators, saying their investigations usually result in nothing.  “You’re trying to muddle up everything by questioning every time how or why (the money was spent), why don’t you just wait until they have completed the project or until the project is terminated. I hope that’s what you do, out of respect (for them).”

We find Duterte’s remarks disturbing because they betray an appalling misunderstanding of checks and balances in a  democratic system of government. As one-half of the legislative branch of government, the Senate is an independent entity  that is tasked by the Constitution not only with lawmaking powers but also oversight functions. This involves, among other things,  monitoring public spending on various projects of the national government.

To prevent the Senate from looking into current projects being implemented by various government agencies is tantamount to curtailing its responsibility to ensure  transparency and accountability on the part of public officials. As part of its constitutional mandate, the Senate has every right to inquire into gross misuse of public funds by corrupt officials.

We must bear down hard on corruption as such systematic pillage of the national treasury not only erodes the credibility of the government in the eyes of our people, but also deprives mainly the poor of vital social services that could help them improve their lives.

Those found to have participated in plunder should be haled into court, especially in the light of revelations that those behind Pharmally have questionable credentials and are fugitives from justice.

The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee should persist in getting to the bottom of the scandalous overprice of supplies for the government’s COVID-19 response despite Malacañang’s frantic efforts to douse the fire with innuendo and lame excuses. We should not allow the  brazen plunder of public funds hatched in the highest reaches of government to be swept under the rug. If the probe reveals that the case involves individuals other than those in the DBM and DOH, then it should do so no matter who gets hurt. The probe should ferret out the truth and be guided by the constitutional mandate for the State to “maintain honesty and integrity in the public service and take positive and effective measures against graft and corruption.”  

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Topics: Ernesto Hilario , President Rodrigo Duterte , COVID-19 , face masks , face shields , personal protective equipment , test kits , Senate Blue Ribbon Committee , Department of Budget and Management , Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon , Sen. Richard Gordon
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