Senate probes Lao’s possible link in controversial laptop deal

THE controversial former head of the Department of Budget and Management-Procurement Service (PS-DBM) linked to the Pharmally mess on Thursday virtually appeared before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee (BRC) inquiry, this time, to answer accusations on the allegedly “pricey and outdated” laptops flagged by the Commission on Audit (COA).

Ex-PS-DBM chief Christopher Lao was grilled by BRC chairman Senator Francis Tolentino, who also disclosed that in the past week, Lao had filed a request for the lifting of a hold-departure order (HDO) issued against him.

Lao had been cited in contempt by the Senate when the Blue Ribbon was then chaired by Sen. Richard J. Gordon, for not cooperating in the Pharmally investigation. He was later tagged in an HDO.

“Ang tenor ng letter ninyo ay humihingi kayo ng pahintulot, mabigyan kayo ng certificate na kayo ay payagan nang makapagtravel. Hindi sa Pilipinas kung hindi siguro sa abroad, at ma-lift na ‘yung hold departure order niyo [The tenor of your letter was for you to be given a certificate that you are now allowed to travel, presumably  abroad, so the HDO against you can be lifted],” Tolentino told Lao.  

However, Tolentino said that the request would have to be referred to the members of the committee for their collegial decision.

It would be recalled that an HDO was slapped against Lao and executives of Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corporation amid congressional investigations into allegedly overpriced purchases of medical supplies for the country’s pandemic response in 2020.

Lao also asked the committee that he may be  excused from the inquiry, claiming he is not the executive director of PS-DBM as of May 2021, the time the DepEd laptops were reportedly purchased.

But Tolentino refused, saying Lao allegedly signed some of the deals on the controversial laptop deal.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros, for her part, asked the PS-DBM how it was able to come up with the price of the laptops, citing COA’s 2021 report flagging the increase in price of the laptop units from P35,046.50 to P58,300. 

Hontiveros also made a comparison from the Department of Education’s (DepEd) June 2020 procurement of laptops, also through the PS-DBM, at a unit price of P32,500. 

Lao said the price might have resulted from a market survey conducted by the agency among four suppliers in March 2021.

He also attributed the price hike to the “disparities” between the DepEd’s procurement requirements and the increased demand in desktop computers and laptops due the expansion of work-from-home arrangements amid the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“Some things still don’t square with the report of Mr. Lao,” Hontiveros remarked.

Not hiding

Former DepEd Secretary Leonor Magtolis Briones was also present during the hearing.

During the hearing, Tolentino requested that Briones be checked by the Senate physician.

Tolentino also said that Briones may be excused from the hearing as she already appeared “stressed.” 

But Briones refused.

She said that she is just as interested as the senators are regarding the information on the laptop procurement done through the PS-DBM.

She thanked the senators for their concern for her.

In her opening statement, Briones said, ” I am not hiding under somebody’s bed. I am as visible as you can see. I am very involved in international debates, as well as concerns for developments in the Philippines,” she said.

Briones is now director of Seameo Innotech, a regional facility hosted by the Philippines with 11 member-countries from Southeast Asia.


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