A welcome, if overdue, resolution

A welcome, if overdue, resolution

/ 05:12 AM May 17, 2024

The Ombudsman’s push for graft charges against two former officials involved in the controversial Pharmally case easily recalls that old saw attributed to ancient Greek and Chinese philosophers: “The wheels of justice turn slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.”

In a resolution released last week, Ombudsman Samuel Martires has recommended the filing of a graft case against former Department of Health secretary Francisco Duque III and former undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao of the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management, for the allegedly irregular transfer of over P41 billion from DOH to PS-DBM to procure COVID-19 supplies during the Duterte administration.

In the overdue but widely welcomed ruling, the Ombudsman also found Duque and Lao guilty of grave misconduct and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service, and ordered the forfeiture of all their retirement benefits and their perpetual disqualification from government service. He also fined them the equivalent of one year’s salary.

‘Evident bad faith’


The charges stemmed from the complaint filed in 2022 by then Sen. Richard Gordon and Sen. Risa Hontiveros before the Office of the Ombudsman for the DOH’s questionable transfer of P41,463,867,117.52 to PS-DBM, which was earlier flagged by the Commission on Audit for lack of supporting documents.

In his resolution, the Ombudsman said there was “no legal obligation nor compelling reason” for the fund transfer since the DOH, having the “expertise” and “technical knowledge” on COVID-19 supplies, could have negotiated directly with traders. The DOH also has “four or five bids and awards committees” that could have done the transaction, the ruling said. It added that aside from saving the DOH more than P1.65 billion in the 4-percent PS-DBM service fee that could have been used to purchase more pandemic supplies, a direct buy from suppliers would have hastened the procurement process instead of adding another layer of bureaucracy.

Among the elements of graft cited in the case, the ruling said the two officials’ act of “evident bad faith”… “gave (a) party unwarranted benefits, advantage, or preference.” That favored “party” refers to Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp., which cornered the multibillion-peso DOH contract despite its measly capitalization of P625,000. Testimonies from unwilling witnesses during a series of Senate hearings from 2021 to 2022 extracted the information that the firm’s officials are Chinese nationals, with its financier identified as then President Rodrigo Duterte’s economic adviser Michael Yang, also a Chinese citizen.

Possible collusion


While the Ombudsman’s resolution came almost three years after the marathon hearings on the Pharmally case, Hontiveros described it as a “victory” for the public who felt betrayed during the health crisis. According to DOH data, a total of 24,234 health-care workers contracted COVID-19, of whom 104 died while serving on the front lines, their health risk aggravated by the lack of medical supplies and protective equipment, according to the Alliance of Health Workers.

The Ombudsman’s ruling, the group added, “sends a strong message” that high government officials who abuse their power and misuse public funds would be held accountable.


Insisting that the fund transfer was legitimate, Duque said he will file a motion for reconsideration to “refute the allegations.” That is, of course, Duque’s right and part of the judicial process. But it would be difficult to challenge the 113-page Senate blue ribbon committee report based on witness testimony that exposed the possible collusion between Duterte officials and Pharmally in the overpriced yet substandard pandemic supplies given to health workers. With so many damning details unearthed in the Senate hearings, Duterte suspiciously issued a memo on Oct. 4, 2021, forbidding Cabinet officials and employees from the executive branch from attending the probe.

‘Following the money trail’

The draft report, in fact, recommended the filing of cases against Duterte himself, once his term ends, for failing to go after his appointees behind the irregularities in the Pharmally deal. Despite Gordon’s best efforts, however, Duterte’s allies in the Senate refused to sign the draft report, sparing the culpable officials—including the former president—from further public scrutiny and possible graft charges.

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The Ombudsman’s resolution recommending graft charges against Duque and Lao should change all that. It is a laudable step to exacting accountability from officials who brazenly used their position for personal and professional gain despite a health emergency. Hopefully, as Gordon suggested, the Ombudsman would pursue Duterte as well by “following the money trail,” so that those who had unconscionably plundered public funds when they were most needed, would get what they truly deserve: thorough prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.

TAGS: Editorial, opinion

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