Tirades, call to inhibit as Senate panel looks into pandemic spending

Bella Perez-Rubio - Philstar.com
Tirades, call to inhibit as Senate panel looks into pandemic spending
COVID-19 patients pictured inside the chapel of Quezon City General Hospital on Aug. 19, 2021.
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines — A senator closely allied with President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday asked Sen. Richard Gordon to inhibit himself from the Blue Ribbon Committee's inquiry into deficiencies in pandemic spending first flagged by state auditors. 

This comes after Gordon, Blue Ribbon chairman, told Senate media earlier Tuesday that the panel's probe could lead to a separate ethics committee investigation on Duterte and his former aide, Sen. Christopher "Bong" Go. He said this was due to their perceived ties to people under scrutiny for the purchase of allegedly overpriced medical supplies.

An irate Go said during a Senate plenary session that there may be a "conflict of interest" in Gordon leading the Blue Ribbon probe because he also sits as chairman of the Philippine Red Cross, which has entered into agreements with PhilHealth amid the pandemic. 

PhilHealth is among the agencies being investigated by senators, along with the Department of Health and the Department of Budget and Management's procurement service, over the spending of pandemic funds.

"In the spirit of fairness and impartiality, shouldn't the Blue Ribbon Committee chair inhibit himself from further hearing all matters involving PhilHealth?" Go asked. 

He went on to lambast Gordon for linking him to former Budget Undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao who was the officer-in-charge of the PS-DBM when it awarded controversial pandemic contracts worth over P8 billion to Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. 

The firm in question was incorporated only in September 2019 and had a paid-up capital of just P625,00 before it bagged key contracts with the PS-DBM, according to Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and a report from Rappler. 

Before joining the DBM, Lao worked as an undersecretary at the Office of the Special Presidential Assistant from 2016 to 2017— an office held by Go until 2018. Lao also hails from Davao and worked on Duterte's presidential campaign. 

"Just because I know him and have worked with him, does not mean I should be included in your judgment," Go said in Filipino, addressing Gordon directly. "[It was the president's] personal choice, it doesn't mean that just because [Lao] was [Duterte's] lawyer, that means he worked [closely] with me." 

Gordon at the same plenary session responded by noting that it was the government that first approached the Philippine Red Cross at the onset of the pandemic and not the other way around.

He named, in particular, Health Secretary Duque III, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año and Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles as some of the officials that sought the PRC's help.  

"I did not ask for a contract, we were told to make a contract," Gordon said in Filipino.

He also said that he never sought chairmanship of the Blue Ribbon Committee and that it was assigned to him. 

Senators: Duterte 'in panic mode,' attempting to 'distract' public amid controversy 

"There have been repeated attempts to distract [from] the investigation," Gordon also said. "No less from our own President of the Republic of the Philippines Rodrigo Roa Duterte." 

"Where did the billions of pesos [in pandemic funds] go? That is my only question," he added in Filipino. "If you are feeling the heat...that is because are unable to explain." 

Duterte in a recorded address aired Tuesday morning ranted about the seven-hour Blue Ribbon Committee hearing last Friday, repeating his criticism that senators conduct probes just for appearance's sake and should not be believed by the public.

The president also defended Lao who he admitted to appointing to key positions in government.

He said this after senators last Friday questioned Lao's quick appointment to undersecretary positions despite his lack of previous experience in government. Duterte said he appointed Lao because he trusted him, having worked with him during the presidential campaign and during his time as Davao City mayor. 

"Anong masama kung magbayad ako ng utang (What's wrong if I pay my debts)?" Duterte said. 

The chief executive also took shots at Gordon and Sen. Panfilo Lacson, both of whom have said they may seek the presidency in 2022, over their physical appearance. 

Lacson responded to Duterte's insults in a statement, saying: "[I]t is not difficult to think that he is in panic mode and is attempting... to discourage the Senate from pursuing our investigation in the highly anomalous procurement of overpriced medical supplies that is starting to knock on the doors of Malacañang." 

"But his insulting rebuke only shows that he and Sen. Bong Go are one and the same, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health," he added.

Both Gordon and Lacson vowed that they would not flinch on the investigation despite Duterte's tirades. 

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