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Hontiveros wants Ombudsman probe on Pharmally mess to include 'masterminds'

Senator Risa Hontiveros on Thursday welcomed the suspension order issued by the Office of the Ombudsman on government officials allegedly involved in the anomalous procurement of pandemic supplies from Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. in 2020 and 2021.

In a statement, Hontiveros however said she is hoping that the Ombudsman investigation will also include the "masterminds behind this modus."

"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."

Thirty-three personnel from the Department of Health (DOH) and the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM) were ordered suspended for six months by the Office of the Ombudsman after it found "overwhelming documentary proof" of their alleged hand in the irregularity, which was probed lengthily by the Senate blue ribbon committee.

According to the Ombudsman, the charges against the 33 "involve grave misconduct, gross neglect of duty, serious dishonesty, and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service."

"Let justice be served. This investigation is just the beginning," said Hontiveros, one of the senators who participated in the blue ribbon probe and signed the committee report, in a press conference.

"Anumang ill-gotten profit mula sa pera ng taumbayan ay dapat likumin at ibalik sa gobyerno kung saan ito nararapat [Any ill-gotten profit should be collected and returned to the government where it belongs.]"

Hontiveros also said she is banking on the special audit that will be conducted by the Commission on Audit (COA) to "paint an even fuller picture" of the issue.

The opposition senator also said former DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III should be among those who should be held accountable for the controversial procurement.

"Sa pananaw ko po bunga ng aming investigation kasama si dating DOH secretary Duque [In my opinion based on the result of our investigation, former DOH Secretary Duque is liable]," she said.

Hontiveros’ sentiments were echoed by House Deputy Minority Leader France Castro of ACT Teachers party-list.

 "The Office of the Ombudsman went for small fry in the Pharmally case but allowed the big fish like former President Duterte, former DOH Secretary Duque and presidential appointee Michael Yang. Bakit ganun, parang may sacred cow (Why does it appear that there are sacred cows)?" Castro said. 

"The Ombudsman should go after who is really behind the Pharmally mess, and that they will not be shielded by the powers that be. Suspension is not enough because public funds were wasted on this," she added.

Meanwhile, Duque said the decision of the Ombudsman affirmed that he did not do anything illegal.

"I would like to believe that the decision of the Ombudsman affirms that I did not do anything unlawful or illegal when I downloaded the procurement of PPEs to PS-DBM. After all, the PS-DBM is the agency specifically tasked to procure common-use supplies for the entire government," Duque told GMA News Online.

"Such action also allowed the DOH to focus its energies and manpower on containing COVID-19 infections, addressing the needs of our healthcare workers, and managing the health of the population," he added.

In 2021, the Senate blue ribbon committee, under then-Senator Richard Gordon, led the inquiry into the transfer of P42 billion COVID-19 funds from the DOH 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, 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.

In a statement on Thursday, Gordon expressed gratitude to the Ombudsman, saying that this was the culmination of the Senate blue ribbon committee’s efforts in exposing the anomalous purchases of overpriced masks, PPEs, and other supplies at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We fought our best to expose and fight the plunder of our pandemic funds, in spite of the undue interference of the executive. This Ombudsman's order is despite the fact that the committee report was not approved during the 18th Congress. It is a vindication of those courageous senators who signed our ‘draft’ report," Gordon said.

"Having the 33 involved officials suspended is a fantastic start towards achieving justice, but it does not stop there. We should all clamor [for] criminal and administrative charges to be filed against them, including the non-government officials masterminds behind the anomalies: Yang Hong Ming (aka Michael Yang), Lin Wei Xiong, Linconn Ong, and Mohit Dargani," he added.

In a separate statement on Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III also lauded the move of the Ombudsman but said "these are just ‘preventive suspensions’ which has a very specific purpose: To prevent those still in public office from influencing the ongoing investigation and case buildup, in the meantime."

"Hence we still have to constantly monitor the OMB’s actions and final decision on this matter," Pimentel said. 

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, for his part, said the decision of the Ombudsman to suspend several officials was a big message for “corrupt” officials amid the pandemic.

“We need to pursue pa para malaman natin who’s accountable, sino may kagagawan nito at ultimately matanggal sa trabaho o makulong,” he said in a separate press conference.

(We need to pursue the investigation so that we can find out who's accountable and ultimately get them fired or put to jail.) —with Llanesca Panti/KBK/VBL, GMA Integrated News