Next: Get Pharmally masterminds
It took a long time coming, but the Ombudsman’s six-month preventive suspension of 33 former and present officials from the Department of Health (DOH) and the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM) linked to the anomalous purchase of pandemic supplies is an encouraging indication that dubious government transactions, even from a previous administration, are still subject to rigorous scrutiny with corresponding accountability exacted from those who may have benefitted from them.
“After a careful evaluation of the records, this office finds compelling reasons to place the respondents under preventive suspension pending investigation of the case,” Ombudsman Samuel Martires said in an order dated March 20. “The overwhelming documentary proof shows that respondents’ evidence of guilt is strong,” he added.
“Dasurv!” as netizens would have applauded.
The suspended officials, who are facing charges of grave misconduct, gross neglect of duty, serious dishonesty, and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service include Overall Deputy Ombudsman Warren Rex Liong, and former PS-DBM undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao, who has since left government service.
The case was the subject of a lengthy Senate investigation in 2020 and 2021 that was triggered by the transfer of about P42 billion in the DOH’s pandemic response funds to PS-DBM, a transaction flagged by the Commission on Audit for lack of supporting documents. It led the Senate panel to the discovery of P11.5 billion worth of contracts for pandemic supplies awarded to Pharmally, a little-known firm with only P625,000 in paid-up capital. The company-supplied COVID-19 test kits, personal protective equipment (PPEs), face masks, and similar items were later found to be defective or substandard, with the Senate report describing the transactions as acts of “malfeasance, misfeasance, and/or non-feasance by government officials in cahoots with Pharmally officers.”
But while the suspension order was welcomed by Sen. Risa Hontiveros, she said the investigation should go “beyond the foot soldiers and mid-level officials,” and include “the masterminds behind the modus.”
Indeed, several personalities implicated in the Senate probe led by then-senator Richard Gordon are noticeably missing from the Ombudsman’s list. They include former DOH secretary Francisco Duque III under whose administration the pandemic response fund was transferred to PS-DBM, and President Rodrigo Duterte whose prosecution was recommended by the Senate anti-graft report for supposedly protecting those behind the irregular deal. The report said Duterte’s then-economic adviser, Michael Yang, a Chinese national suspected to be the real owner of Pharmally, facilitated the grossly overpriced transactions involving mostly Chinese suppliers.
The Ombudsman must definitely consider expanding its suspension order to include other parties who have used their pelf, power, and position to rush and thus sabotage the government’s procurement process that was precisely put in place to protect public funds. If mere functionaries compelled to follow their bosses’ instructions are now made to face the music, shouldn’t these bosses be considered culpable, maybe even more so, based on the principle of command responsibility? For a start, the Ombudsman could use the findings of the Senate investigation which are a matter of public record. That exhaustive probe has also established the probable culpability of other parties unnamed in the suspension order, including Filipino executives Linconn Ong, Mohit Dargani, Twinkle Dargani, Krizle Grace Mago, and Yang.
And, as pointed out by Hontiveros, shouldn’t the Ombudsman’s investigation also cover the PPEs and other overpriced procurements, aside from the 51,400 units of COVID-19 test kits included in the suspension order? Widening the order’s scope would surface more names involved and the extent of their rapacity. While a parallel congressional probe of the Pharmally mess has justified that the Bayanihan as One Act calls for an emergency response to the pandemic and thus allowed shortcuts to the usual procurement process, the gross overprice and substandard supplies betray the sheer greed and unconscionable actions of the parties involved. Aside from lining their pockets with funds sorely needed to deal with an unknown but deadly virus, these unscrupulous individuals betrayed a complete disregard for the health risks that others could be exposed to, no thanks to their shoddy supplies.
As Martires himself noted, the seriousness of the allegations against them “would warrant removal from the service.”
Might we add, how about a hold travel order, especially for those who had left government service, and at least a partial return of the stolen funds from the pension of high officials involved?
And, as suggested by Gordon because these monsters deserve to be behind bars, a jail term. That’s plunder, he said, and ordinary folk should see what punishment awaits those who take us for fools to discourage similar deeds in government offices. That, and a similar thorough probe by the Ombudsman into other graft-ridden transactions.
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