‘Laughable, last-ditch effort’: Hontiveros denies charges filed by Pharmally employee

Bella Perez-Rubio - Philstar.com
âLaughable, last-ditch effortâ: Hontiveros denies charges filed by Pharmally employee
Sen. Risa Hontiveros, vice chairperson of the Committee on Cooperatives, attends the organizational meeting on the cooperative sector held at the Philippine Senate Monday, February 10, 2020.
Henzberg Austria / Senate PRIB

MANILA, Philippines — Sen. Risa Hontiveros on Wednesday vehemently denied the charges filed against her by the controversial Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. at the Office of the Ombudsman. 

It was a certain Jaime Vegas who lodged the 15-page complaint, accusing Hontiveros of conspiring to commit sedition, subornation of perjury, offering false evidence, and violating the norms of conduct of public officials. 

Vegas, a Pharmally employee, claims that Hontiveros bribed his co-worker, Veejay Almira, to tell the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee under oath that the firm instructed employees to tamper with the expiry dates of medical-grade face shields. 

Also included in the complaint is a sworn statement from Almira who — in a departure from prior testimony — now claims he was bribed by Hontiveros' office. 

The witness in question first appeared before the Senate panel on September 24 through a recorded video message. He testified under oath but asked to remain anonymous to the public, citing concerns for his safety. 

Vegas claims that Hontiveros and a lawyer from her office, Jaye Bekema, actually offered to pay Almira P20,000 for his testimony. He alleged that Almira took the supposed bribe because he needed money to care for his sick child. 

But Almira himself, appearing before Senate reporters on September 30, affirmed that everything he said in his original testimony was true. He also signed an affidavit denying Pharmally's bribery claims. 

"The charge to commit sedition is laughable. Holding public officials accountable is not rising publicly and tumultuously against the government," Hontiveros said in response during a media briefing. "I do not need to resort to unlawful means to point out anomalies in Pharmally's transactions." 

"The Senate has already exposed [much] of [this] information. This is clearly a last-ditch effort by Pharmally and its backers." 

The Senate panel's probe on reported deficiencies in pandemic spending has centered largely on Pharmally, the government's most favored pandemic supplier. 

One of its officers, Krizle Grace Mago, confirmed Almira's testimony on the firm's tampering with face shields shortly after it was delivered. She also said at the time that she believed Pharmally was "swindling" the government by selling it face shields which Almira called "substandard." 

Mago has since disavowed her own testimony but Senate President Vicente Sotto III told Philstar.com that her sworn statement still carries more weight than a subsequent retraction. 

Hontiveros and her office have bared several other key revelations about Pharmally, including the fact that its chairman and CEO Huang Tzu Yen is wanted in Taiwan for alleged financial crimes and that the firm sold government medical supplies at prices higher than those listed in its catalog.

Hontiveros: We have receipts 

"I just want to remind everyone that we have receipts, and that’s what solidifies our investigation," Hontiveros told reporters in Filipino. "We have nothing to hide and we are ready to face the accusations."

She presented screenshots of Almira's exchanges with her office, showing that he was the first to approach them through Facebook on September 3. He reached out again through an email on September 9. 

It also appears that it was Almira who asked to appear live before Senate reporters to reaffirm his testimony. 

Hontiveros also showed copies of the two affidavits signed by Almira: the first is his testimony on Pharmally and the second is his denial of the firm's bribery allegations. 

The senator also said that she offered to place Almira under the Senate's protective custody but he did not take her up on the offer. 

Hontiveros staffer: Witness not paid P20K for testimony 

Meanwhile, Bekema, from Hontiveros'  legislative staff, said she did not bribe Almira but gave him a total of P3,500 using her own money because he shared that his child was suffering from rashes. She added that this was after he gave his testimony. 

"I also gave him toys for his baby [that used to belong] to my child but it was always in the nature of humanitarian assistance. It was outside of our office," Bekema told reporters partially in Filipino. "Everything is documented. I have screenshots [showing] that it was him who asked and, very clearly, this was after he told us that he had something to reveal about Pharmally."  

"We will present all these pieces of evidence to the ombudsman. We are very ready."  

She added that the witness made other requests that Hontiveros' office could not grant.

Asked if Almira might have been pressured to change his story, Bekema said: "All I know is that Veejay is in a position of vulnerability. When we got to know him, he was a blue-collar worker at the Pharmally warehouseman." 

"He has a four-month-old child with an illness. I also know that he is very scared...because a man in a motorcycle was looking for him and was trying to pay his neighbors P2,000 to [disclose his location]," she added. This is consistent with a text exchange with Almira presented by Hontiveros' office to reporters on October 5. 

Hontiveros chimed in to say that she was saddened and extremely disappointed by Almira's sudden departure from his previous statements but that she still wished him well.

"I appreciate forever the testimony that he gave on video and in the affidavit. For me, that's of record in the Blue Ribbon Committee so that carries a lot of weight in our ongoing investigation." — with a report from Kristine Joy Patag 





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