Fact check: Pharmally warehouseman's testimony was made under oath

Franco Luna, Bella Perez-Rubio - Philstar.com
Fact check: Pharmally warehouseman's testimony was made under oath
A House of Representatives panel holds its final hearing on the government's deals with its favored pandemic supplier Pharmacy Pharmaceutical Corp. on October 4, 2021.
Screen grab / House of Representatives Facebook page

MANILA, Philippines — Members of the House on Monday tried to discredit a Senate witness' testimony alleging irregularities in government deals with Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp., claiming his statement was not made under oath and that no Senate witness has ever testified while remaining anonymous.

Both of these claims are false.

What they said: House Deputy Speaker Rodante Marcoleta speculated that a warehouseman employed by the firm who accused Pharmally of repackaging substandard face shields and switching out their expiry dates did not do so under oath.

"[The witness] could not swear [under oath] simply because he was incognito," Marcoleta, also SAGIP party-list rep., said partially in Filipino as the House of Representatives held its final hearing on the government's contracts with Pharmally.

"We cannot accept the testimony of the person who does not want to be identified and can no longer swear whether what he tells us is true or not," he added. "It's a waste of time... it's not admissible in evidence."

The House and the Senate are conducting their hearings separately. 

Rep. Jawo Jimenez (Zamboanga City 1st District), who is serving his first term in Congress, also claimed that this was the first time an anonymous witness was invited to testify at a Senate probe.

"I've been a fan, really, of watching Senate investigations...we learn a lot from those hearings," he said in mixed Filipino and English. "But if I'm not mistaken, I'm sorry to say this, this could be the first time that someone spoke and the people could not see who was speaking."

"To me, it would be unfair, Mr. Chairman, because if you are out to know the truth, perhaps the Filipino people should see them...if we are out to know the truth, then perhaps the people should really see them," Jimenez added.

"If we're telling the truth, and we can protect our witnesses, then perhaps we don't need to protect their identity."

What they left out: Before a recorded video of the Senate witness' testimony was even played before the Blue Ribbon Committee on September 24, Sen. Risa Hontiveros noted that his statement was given under oath.

"For reasons of security, we blurred his face and concealed his identity," she said then. "[B]ut I do have in my possession a copy of his statement under oath."

RELATED: Witness not paid, info 'vetted for weeks', Hontiveros says of Pharmally claim of bribery | Senate witness denies Pharmally’s bribery claim: Everything in my testimony was true

It is also not true that the use of anonymous witnesses is a new practice in the Senate, or even at the House.

Earlier this year, Hontiveros presented a video clip of a woman claiming to be a police detainee who was made to work with police operatives during an anti-narcotics operation that went south after another near-misencounter with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.

As the Senate panel on women in March launched its probe on the Filipino women trafficked to Syria, Hontiveros, committee chairperson, also presented testimonies from several alleged victims who asked to remain anonymous.

Another probe in 2020 also led by Hontiveros saw testimony from alias Carina, a rescued 15-year-old who spoke on prostitution dens linked to the Chinese workers of Philippine offshore gaming operators or POGOs. The senator only played an audio clip of the teenager's testimony to protect her identity.

In 2017, Hontiveros' office also granted protection to unnamed witnesses of the murder of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos who reportedly watched policemen drag and eventually shoot the young boy after a supposed anti-drug operation.

Although rare, the practice of hiding a witness's identity for their security, is not new. 

In May 2010, House hearings into alleged election fraud featured videos of a masked witness who claimed knowledge of hacking operations meant to discredit the recently concluded polls.  

Essential context: Lawmakers sought to discredit the witness in question after Pharmally officer Krizle Grace Mago disavowed her own testimony confirming the warehouse worker's claim.

The warehouseman claimed he and other workers were instructed by Mago to repackage face shields intended for doctors and medical frontliners even when they were damaged and even "expired."

When she was first asked to respond to the witness' allegations, Mago said: "With regards to the changing of the stickers of the items...That is something I cannot deny."

Asked further by Senate Blue Ribbon chairman Richard Gordon if the firm swindled the government by tampering with the face shields, she admitted: "Yes, I believe so."

But Mago became unreachable to the panel after the hearing, resurfacing a week later under the House's custody with a different story.

Facing administration allies at the House on Monday, she proceeded to deny the Senate witness' testimony and disavow her own admissions entirely.

"Given the amount of pressure that I was under at that time, and even the rush of emotions associated with the allegations made and my subsequent admission, I was not in the proper frame of mind to think clearly at that time," she said of her testimony before the Senate.

But Sens. Risa Hontiveros and Franklin Drilon have questioned this explanation, noting that she easily and immediately confirmed the Senate witness' testimony and admitted to swindling the government.

"If anyone even pressured her, it must have been a very powerful force [instructing] her to take back what she told [the Senate] first," Hontiveros said in Filipino.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III also told Philstar.com that a "statement made under oath incriminating oneself has more weight than a recantation."

Why does this matter?: The House of the People's iteration of the inquiry into the Commission on Audit's 2020 report flagging anomalies in government spending casts a stark contrast to that of the higher chamber.

While senators grilled ranking execs of the embattled Pharmally on allegations of tampering and overpricing, House lawmakers took the time to lawyer for the company and the government agencies it had dealings with.

Lawmakers earlier pounced on the COA's admission that it did not report any corruption in the government agencies it probed in its reports.

House reps played up this admission as proof of the Health Department's innocence, but representatives of COA were careful to point out that proving corruption or overspending was not in their mandate to begin with.

FACT CHECK: Is COA mandated to prove corruption in government?

Marcoleta on Monday questioned anew the integrity of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee's hearing, saying senators "concocted [an] environment in such a way that they will be able to extract [...] information under duress and undue influence."

He added that the higher chamber failed to let Pharmally and DBM execs "speak freely" and instead "asked question after question" that he claimed "traumatized" both former DBM Usec. Lao and Mago.

Did the Senate really break its own rules?: "The task of coming up with conclusions and findings of facts regarding anomalies are not functions of the Senate [and] Congress is neither a law enforcement nor a trial agency," Marcoleta, a key figure in the demolition of broadcast giant ABS-CBN said as he asked the two leading questions.

"That is going beyond formal inquiry in aid of legislation. Investigations cannot be done to build up a case. Do you understand that?"

In response, Lao said: "I understand that fully...Thank you for the education."

While Senate inquiries are conducted in aid of legislation, the chamber also sometimes recommends the filing of charges in their committee reports.

Some of the charges and actions recommended by the Senate Committee on the Whole against officials of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. last year were pursued by the Office of the Ombudsman.

What kind of misinformation is this?: The lawmakers' statements are examples of false claims.

This classification of misinformation includes posts that can make use of genuine statements and media but are used to push a false narrative.

This story is part of the Philippine Fact-check Incubator, an Internews initiative to build the fact-checking capacity of news organizations in the Philippines and encourage participation in global fact-checking efforts

Have a claim you want fact-checked? Reach out to us at editor@philstar.com.

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