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Ombudsman suspends 33 gov't officials over Pharmally mess

The Office of the Ombudsman has suspended for six months 33 government officials in connection with the allegedly anomalous procurement of pandemic supplies in 2020 and 2021, Unang Balita reported on Thursday, quoting Ombudsman Samuel Martires.

Among those suspended was Overall Deputy Ombudsman Warren Rex Liong, formerly the procurement group director of the Department of Budget and Management - Procurement Service (PS-DBM) allegedly involved in the following purchases:

  • 8,000 units of BGI Real Time Fluorescent RT-PCR kits totalling P600 million covered by Purchase Order (PO) No. PO20-
  • 00210-CSE dated April 23, 2020
  • 2,000 units of A* Star Fortitude RT-PCR Test kits worth P688 million covered by PO No. PO20-00211-CSE dated April 23, 2020
  • 41,400 units of BGI Real Time Fluorescent RT-PCR kits amounting to around P2.87 billion covered by PO No. PO20-00286-CSE dated June 9, 2020

Also suspended were other PS-DBM officials as well as officials from the Department of Health (DOH).

The other PS-DBM officials who were ordered suspended were:

  • Christine Marie Suntay
  • Fatimah Amsrha Penaflor
  • Joshua Laure
  • Earvin Jay I Alparaque
  • Julius Santos
  • Paul Jasper De Guzman
  • Dickson Panti
  • Karen Anne Requintina
  • Rodevie Cruz
  • Webster Laureñana
  • Sharon Baile
  • Gerelyn Vergara
  • Abelardo Gonzales
  • Jez Charlemagne Arago
  • Nicole John Cabueños
  • Ray-ann Sorilla
  • Chamel Fiji Melo
  • Allan Raul Catalan
  • Mervin Ian Tanquintic
  • Jorge Mendoza III
  • Jasonmer Uayan and
  • August Ylangan

Former DBM Undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao, who served during the Duterte administration, is also included in the suspension order but he has long parted with the agency.

Meanwhile, the DOH officials covered by the suspension were:

  • Nestor Santiago, Jr.
  • Crispinita Valdez
  • Amado Tandoc
  • Lei Lanna Dancel
  • Dave Tangcalagan
  • Jhobert Bernal
  • Kenneth Aristotle Punzalan
  • Rose Marasigan  and
  • Maria Carmela Reyes

"After a careful evaluation of the records, this Office finds compelling reasons to place the respondents under preventive suspension pending investigation of the instant case. The overwhelming documentary proof shows that respondents’ evidence of guilt is strong," the Ombudsman order read.

According to the Ombudsman, the charges against these personalities "involve grave misconduct, gross neglect of duty, serious dishonesty, and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service."

"The gravity of these offenses coupled with the seriousness of their participation would warrant removal from the service," it said.

Section 24 of the Ombudsman law states that, "[T]he Ombudsman or his Deputy may preventively suspend any officer or employee under his authority pending an investigation, if in his judgment the evidence of guilt is strong, and (a) the charge against such officer or employee involves dishonesty, oppression or grave misconduct or neglect in the performance of duty; (b) the charges would warrant removal from the service; or (c) the respondent's continued stay in office may prejudice the case filed against him."

Liong questions suspension

The camp of Liong, meanwhile, questioned the suspension, saying although he was the procurement group director at the time of the procurement, he was not involved in the transaction.

A report by Mariz Umali on Balitanghali said Liong's camp also said that no bidding was required for the procurement as the country Bayanihan to Heal as One Act was in effect due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Liong has yet to receive a copy of the suspension order. His camp maintained that he did not benefitted financially from the transaction.

In a separate statement, PS-DBM said will implement the Ombudsman's suspension order on the concerned officials within the specified time frame.

"Under the current leadership, the PS-DBM shall continue to implement and institute crucial procurement and administrative reforms, while implementing zero tolerance on irregularities and any form of corruption,"  it said.

The DOH, for its part, vouched for the integrity of nine of its officials who were included in the suspension order.

While it respects the decision of the Ombudsman, the DOH maintained that the officials “played significant roles” in the pandemic response of the government.

In 2021, then-Senator Richard Gordon, as blue ribbon committee chair, led the inquiry into the transfer of P42 billion COVID-19 funds from the Department of Health to PS-DBM.

This included the P8.6 billion PS-DBM used for purchasing face masks, face shields, and personal protective equipment (PPEs) from Pharmally Pharmaceuticals Corp., which only had P625,000 in paid-up capital when it entered into government transactions.

Gordon’s report recommended the filing of criminal charges against several government officials and individuals, including those from Pharmally, in connection with the purchases. Several senators, however, did not sign the report.

Senator Risa Hontiveros in June last year said she was "very willing" to file a resolution in the next Congress for another investigation on the alleged anomalous transactions with Pharmally.

In a statement on Thursday, Hontiveros welcomed the suspension but said the Ombudsman probe should also cover the "masterminds" and not just the "foot soldiers."

"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 said.

"Although the Ombudsman order only covers the COVID-19 test kits, we look forward to an investigation of the PPEs and other overpriced procurements." —KBK, GMA Integrated News