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Tolentino vows short inquiries as probes into DepEd laptops, sugar mess set

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
Tolentino vows short inquiries as probes into DepEd laptops, sugar mess set
Students attend a class at Ricardo P. Cruz elementary school in Taguig city, suburban Manila on December 6, 2021, after authorities loosened Covid-19 coronavirus restrictions to allow limited in-person classes in the capital city.
AFP / Ted Aljibe

MANILA, Philippines — Sen. Francis Tolentino, chair of the Senate Committee on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations, vowed Wednesday that the panel would avoid prolonged hearings as he confirmed that probes into the overpriced laptops for public school teachers and into an irregular sugar importation order are set for next week.

Although all Senate committees can hold hearings in aid of legislation, the powerful Blue Ribbon Committee is the main panel for investigations into high-profile controversies. Under Senate rules, the panel has jurisdiction in the investigation of "malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance" in government.

"We will not evolve into a political circus, we will respect the rights of the resource person… We will not be here to witch hunt, to have a fishing expedition," Tolentino said in his opening statement at the first organizational meeting of the committee.

"We have a Constitutional duty to fulfill, and that is to prevent abuses, to pass the proper remedial legislation, but with a known standard of proof. We are not going for the guilt beyond reasonable doubt standard; that is the job of the prosecutors as well as the courts."

The panel, during the final months of the Duterte administration, held a battery of hearings on allegedly anomalous pandemic purchases linked to Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. and the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management.

PS-DBM is again in hot water over laptops that the education department procured through it and that state auditors flagged for being overpriced for entry-level machines.   

Tolentino, also a member of the Blue Ribbon Committee during the 18th Congress, was among the lawmakers who did not sign the draft report detailing the findings on those hearings. He said then that President Rodrigo Duterte should not have been included in the report "because there has never been a breach of public trust" in the president.

He said that determining guilt will be up to the judiciary and that the panel's "job is to satisfy ourselves to have that inner conviction, that moral certitude that a person appearing before this committee has committed a wrongdoing which would necessitate the filing of charges."

At the same meeting, Sen. Risa Hontiveros — one of two members of the Senate minority bloc — cited the role that the Blue Ribbon Committee had in the country's history and said she was sure that Tolentino "will conduct the proceedings with an even hand and a view towards exacting the highest standards of public office."

Hontiveros, who had participated in Blue Ribbon hearings into government pandemic spending, added: "There have been many calls, Mr. Chair, over the past few weeks to abolish the PS-DBM, and to allow the individual agencies to procure their own supplies and equipment instead of coursing it through the centralized procurement system of the PS-DBM." 

"I support these calls, but an equally – if not more urgent call – needs to be made: hold to account the officials who used the PS-DBM as their milking cow."

At Wednesday's meeting, Tolentino set the dates to begin separate probes on the sugar importation fiasco and the overpriced laptops procured by the Department of Education on Tuesday, August 22 and Thursday, August 25, respectively. 

Senators urge probes on possible anomalies

In a privilege speech at the Senate plenary session on Monday, Senate President Juan Miguel "Migz" Zubiri claimed hundreds of millions of pesos were paid in kickbacks for the importation of thousands of tons of sugar.

"This recent fiasco has put a spotlight not only on the SRA's blatant disregard for the local sugar industry, but also on its bald-faced attempts to usurp authority," Zubiri, whose home province of Bukidnon counts sugarcane as a major crop, said.

The Sugar Regulatory Administration execs involved in issuing an importation authority that the Palace later rejected have resigned, but Zubiri said they were still liable and would still be investigated by the Blue Ribbon Committee. 

READ: Sugar crunch complicates pandemic recovery for Philippine confectioners

Earlier Monday, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano urged the committee to probe into the laptops for public school teachers, saying the powerful committee would be the best avenue to learn the truth behind possible anomalies in the pandemic procurement. Cayetano, House speaker during part of the Duterte administration, has identified with neither the majority nor minority bloc of the Senate.

"At least in one or two hearings they can establish if there were anomalies. There are more questions than answers every time the DBM is mentioned," he said, adding failing to hold hearings would embolden others in government.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III also filed a resolution seeking hearings into the laptop deal,saying in Senate Resolution 120 that the DepEd and PS-DBM explain why fewer units were bought and for a higher price.

BLUE RIBBON COMMITTEE

DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION

PROCUREMENT SERVICE OF THE DEPARTMENT OF BUDGET­ AND MANAGEMENT

SUGAR REGULATORY ADMINISTRATION

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