THE Office of the Ombudsman has suspended over 30 past and present officials in three agencies, including its own overall deputy ombudsman, in connection with alleged wrongdoing in handling billions of pandemic funds, affirming most of the findings of the Senate Blue Ribbon investigation.
Senator Risa Hontiveros on Thursday hailed the Ombudsman’s decision to issue a “preventive suspension” order related to the Pharmally investigation, but expressed hope the antigraft agency will also be able to pin down the brains behind the scandal, which saw P42 billion of funds for pandemic supplies awarded to a low-capitalized, unproven new firm.
The funds were in the budget of the Department of Health, but then Health Secretary Francisco Duque III ordered its bulk transfer to the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM), on the ground that the DOH was too busy with the pandemic response to handle the huge procurement chores.
The PS-DBM handling of the funds caught the eye of state audtors, and the Commission on Audit (COA) report in August 2021 subsequently triggered a five-month Blue Ribbon inquiry led by its then chairman, Sen. Richard J. Gordon.
The Office of the Ombudsman has validated the Senate probers’ findings that the evidence of guilt is strong, Hontiveros said in a reaction on Thursday, after the Ombudsman suspended former PS-DBM head Lloyd Christopher Lao and his then colleague in PS-DBM Warren Rex Liong, who is now the overall deputy ombudsman.
Liong denied wrongdoing, saying he merely followed established protocols for emergency procurement.
“[We thank the] Ombudsman for being true to its mandate to run after those who commit wrongdoing,” said Hontiveros, who in October 2022 joined Gordon in filing a formal complaint with the Ombudsman. “My hope is that the investigation will also look into the masterminds behind this modus, well beyond the foot soldiers and mid-level officials,” she added.
The senator noted that although the Ombudsman order only covers the Covid-19 test kits, “we look forward to an investigation of the PPEs and other overpriced procurements.”
She expressed confidence the “COA special audit will paint an even fuller picture,” and that “any and all ill-gotten profit made from taxpayers’ money should eventually be seized and turned back over to the government where it belongs.”
The DOH, meanwhile said it welcomes the Office of the Ombudsman’s decision after several officials of the agency were ensnared for the alleged corruption in the Pharmally transactions of Covid-19 response supplies.
Placed under 6-month preventive suspension were former Assistant Secretary Nestor Santiago, Jr., procurement service director Crispinita Valdez, also Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) officials Amado Tandoc, Lei Lanna Dancel, Dave Tangcalagan, Jhobert Bernal, Kenneth Aristotle Punzalan, Rose Marasigan and Maria Carmela Reyes.
“These officials have been with the agency for decades, and we continue to recognize their service, sacrifice, and commitment to the Filipino people. While we commit to religiously comply with all the procedures, the DOH vouches for the integrity of these officials, who have played significant roles in the country’s Covid-19 response,” the DOH said in a statement.
The DOH also reiterated the role of the DOH and RITM was limited to “providing technical inputs” as end-users in the conduct of the procurement of commodities for Covid-19 pandemic.
“The DOH would like to clarify that the preventive suspension is a not a penalty imposed on officials of the Department. This is a procedure legally done to ease the investigation with the influence of the individuals in question,” added the statement.
The DOH assured that they will cooperate in the investigation “and will continuously uphold all due processes as mandated by the Office of the Ombudsman and the Governemnt of the Philippines.”
Of the P42 billion Covid-19 funds moved from DOH to PS-DBM,
P8.6 billion was used by PS-DBM to procure face masks, face shields, and personal protective equipment (PPEs) from Pharmally Pharmaceuticals Corp., a trading firm with no track record in health supply production and capitalized at only P650,000.