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Red flags all over

/ 05:30 AM November 03, 2020

Four years after that grandiloquent June 2016 declaration that “not even a whiff of corruption’’ would be tolerated in his administration, President Duterte admits that corruption under his watch has only gotten worse, and so he has made another vow: that he would dedicate the last two years of his term to battling this scourge. “I will concentrate the last remaining years of my term fighting corruption, because up to now, it is not waning, it is becoming stronger,’’ he said in an address on Oct. 27.

To this end, he has ordered a sweeping investigation of corruption in all agencies in government and to file charges against those involved, whether in the public or private sector. The President’s order directed Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra and his department to take the lead in the campaign and expand the scope of the task force originally created to investigate the multibillion-peso corruption in the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth). The President’s new big-ticket crusade will cover the entire bureaucracy, supposedly even the separate judicial and legislative branches of government.

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Such is the magnitude of the proposed crackdown on corruption that Guevarra said it was the “toughest assignment’’ he has gotten so far from his boss.

How the Department of Justice (DOJ) will undertake the massive investigation is still apparently in the works. Justice Undersecretary and spokesperson Emmeline Aglipay Villar said the “mega task force’’ was still formulating the mechanism on how to proceed, suggesting “strike teams’’ for each agency of government. Guevarra said they will start with the “usual suspects’’ — the agencies widely perceived to be the most corrupt: the Department of Public Works and Highways, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the Bureau of Customs, the Land Registration Authority, and of late the state insurer PhilHealth.

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But if the DOJ-led task force wants to hit the ground running, why not begin with the findings of an agency already constituted by law to be at the forefront of the fight versus corruption? The Commission on Audit (COA) is a veritable gold mine of information that the so-called mega task force can use as leads for conducting a deeper probe. Despite Mr. Duterte’s expressed aversion to the COA, the independent, constitutional commission with the mandate to prevent irregularities in government procurement and misuse of taxpayer money has been doing a yeoman’s job itemizing for the public numerous instances of waste, graft, and inefficiency in public office.

As of last month, the COA has released nearly a dozen audit reports flagging billions of pesos’ worth of projects attended with irregularities. To name a few:

• The National Telecommunications Commission’s “excessive’’ move to buy 44 high-end phones worth P2.1 million for its directors, while its field engineers were using borrowed phones.

• The North Luzon Railways Corp.’s spending of P232.89 million for the relocation of informal settlers—but with no actual relocation undertaken; and for another P423.46 million for right-of-way acquisition found to be anomalous.

• The “undue advantage” given by the Bases Conversion and Development Authority to the contractor for P8.510 billion in sports facilities for the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, which the COA said was prejudicial to the interest of the government and resulted in the government paying billions in additional cost.

• The Department of Education’s P1.9 billion in unliquidated cash advances as of 2019, and its “below-par overall accomplishment rate of 46.98 percent in the procurement and 17.96 percent in the delivery of manuscripts and the textbooks/learning materials” for the same year which “had deprived its learners and teachers of adequate and quality learning materials in the public schools nationwide,” according to the COA.

• The DPWH’s loss of P1.3 billion to contractors because it failed to recover advance payments for completed, rescinded, or terminated projects. And while the COA made the same findings in 2018, the DPWH reportedly did not act on it. The COA also found 461 infrastructure projects with technical defects and deficiencies amounting to more than P376 million.

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• The inexcusable negligence of the Department of Health at this time of the pandemic, with P2.2 billion worth of expired, overstocked, or nearly expired medicines and medical and dental supplies in its inventory. Also called out: the DOH’s rejection of over P111 million in PhilHealth reimbursement claims filed by public hospitals.

And so on. Red flags are all over if one just has to look, the COA’s reports providing the impetus for an honest-to-goodness crackdown on corruption without the need for a new “mega task force.” The DOJ, the Ombudsman, and other investigating arms of the government have more than enough to start digging seriously and relentlessly, sparing no one — but only if they are inclined to do so.

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TAGS: COA red flags, corruption in government, DOJ, DPWH, Editorial, Emmeline Aglipay Villar, Mark Villar, Menardo Guevarra, Rodrigo Duterte
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