The Department of Health (DOH) on Thursday vouched for the integrity of nine of its officials ordered suspended for six months by the Office of the Ombudsman for alleged involvement in the anomalous procurement of COVID-19 supplies in 2020 and 2021.
Senator Risa Hontiveros expressed elation over the preventive suspensions ordered by the Ombudsman on 33 government officials implicated in the so-called Pharmally anomaly.
Suspended were Nestor Santiago, Jr., Crispinita Valdez, Amado Tandoc, Lei Lanna Dancel, Dave Tangcalagan, Jhobert Bernal, Kenneth Aristotle Punzalan, Rose Marasigan, and Maria Carmela Reyes.
Also suspended were 24 other officials of the Department of Budget and Management – Procurement Service (PS-DBM), including overall deputy Ombudsman Warren Rex Liong and former DBM Undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao.
“The Department of Health respects the decision of the Office of the Ombudsman to order the preventive suspension of several officials of the department,” the DOH said in a statement.
“These officials have been with the agency for decades, and we continue to recognize their service, sacrifice, and commitment to the Filipino people. While we commit to religiously comply with all procedures, the DOH vouches for the integrity of these officials, who have played significant roles in the country’s COVID-19 response,” the statement read.
“Furthermore, we would also like to reiterate that the role of the DOH and the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) was limited to providing technical inputs as end-users in the conduct of the procurement of commodities for the COVID-19 pandemic,” it added.
“The DOH would like to clarify that the preventive suspension is not a penalty imposed on the officials of the Department. This is a procedure legally done to ease the investigation without the influence of the individuals in question…” the DOH said.
“Rest assured that the DOH will cooperate in the investigation and will continuously uphold all due processes as mandated by the Office of the Ombudsman and the Government of the Philippines. We ask the public to reserve judgment and keep an open mind until the investigation has been resolved.”
“The DOH remains true to its commitment and will continue to provide quality healthcare services to all Filipinos,” the DOH said.
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.”
PS-DBM executive director Dennis Santiago, on the other hand, said that it will comply with the Ombudsman’s order, emphasizing that it has “zero tolerance” for any form of corruption.
“We join the Office of the Ombudsman in its quest for truth and upholding public trust. Rest assured that we shall implement the Order within the specified time frame,” he said.
“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,” he added.
The camp of Liong earlier questioned the suspension, saying that although he was the procurement group director at the time of the purchase, he was not involved in the transaction.
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 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 Pharmaceuticals Corp., which only had P625,000 in paid-up capital when it entered into government transactions.
Hontiveros hoped that the Ombudsman would continue its probe and investigate further to include other individuals.
On Oct. 22, 2022, Hontiveros said they endorsed the draft committee report of the case to the Ombudsman.
In a separate media briefing, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian said he agreed with Hontiveros’ remark that this is a case vindication on the part of Gordon and Hontiveros since they failed to get enough signatures in the Senate.
He lauded the Ombudsman’s decision, saying those linked to the anomaly stole public funds during a pandemic.
The senator is also amenable to the plan of Hontiveros to pursue another probe on the Pharmally issue when the need arises.
Hontiveros noted the Ombudsman has validated their Senate findings that the evidence of guilt is strong. She thanked the Ombudsman for being true to its mandate to run after those who commit wrongdoing.
“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, Hontiveros said they look forward to an investigation of the PPEs and other overpriced procurements.
“I am sure the COA special audit will paint an even fuller picture. Any and all ill-gotten profit made from taxpayers’ money should eventually be seized and turned back over to the government where it belongs,” she said.
“Let justice be served. This investigation is just the beginning,” Hontiveros said.