MANILA (3rd UPDATE) — Thirty-three government officials from the Department of Budget and Management, Department of Health and Office of the Ombudsman were placed under 6-month preventive suspension over the purchase of COVID-19 test kits from Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corporation in 2020.
In the order dated March 20, 2023 and signed by Ombudsman Samuel Martires, the Office of the Ombudsman found compelling reasons to put the respondents under preventive suspension pending investigation of the case.
Those who were put on preventive suspension included former Procurement Service-Department of Budget and Management undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao and former PS-DBM procurement group director and now Overall Deputy Ombudsman Warren Rex Liong.
Other PS-DBM officials at the time of the Pharmally transactions who were suspended include Christine Marie Suntay, Fatimah Amsrha Penaflor, Joshua Laure, Earvin Jay Alparaque, Julius Santos, Paul Jasper De Guzman, Dickson Panti, Karen Anne Requintina, Rodevie Cruz, Webster Laureñana, Sharon Baile, Gerelyn Vergara, Abelardo Gonzales, Jez Charlemagne Arago, Nicole John Cabueños, Ray-ann Sorilla, Chamel Fiji Melo, Allan Raul Catalan, Mervin Ian Tanquintic, Jorge Mendoza, III, Jasonmer Uayan and August Ylangan.
DOH officials who were also suspended include then-Assistant Secretary Nestor Santiago, Jr., procurement service director Crispinita Valdez, as well as Research Institute for Tropical Medicine officials Amado Tandoc, Lei Lanna Dancel, Dave Tangcalagan, Jhobert Bernal, Kenneth Aristotle Punzalan, Rose Marasigan and Maria Carmela Reyes.
“Indubitably, respondents’ continued stay in office may prejudice the case filed against them,” the Ombudsman said.
Copies of the order were sent to DBM Secretary Amenah Pangandaman, DOH officer-in-charge Maria Rosario Vergeire and acting chief administrative officer of the Office of the Ombudsman Human Resource and Management Division Lotis Aguirre for their immediate implementation.
The Ombudsman said the overwhelming documentary proof showed that respondents’ evidence of guilt was strong.
The respondents are facing charges of grave misconduct, gross neglect of duty, serious dishonesty and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service.
“The gravity of these offenses coupled with the seriousness of their participation would warrant removal from the service,” the Ombudsman said.
Among the transactions mentioned in the order of the Ombudsman were 3 purchase orders for RT-PCR kits from April to June 2020 worth P2.877 billion, P600 million and P688 million.
'HINDI AKO KUMITA'
Meantime, Liong said in a statement read by his lawyer Rafael Calinisan that his actions when he was at the PS-DBM were in accordance with the Bayanihan To Heal As One Act.
“Gusto kong sabihin sa publiko na wala akong ginagawang kwestyonableng aksyon at hindi ako kumita,” Liong said in the statement read by Calinisan.
(I want to tell the public that I committed no questionable action and I did not profit.)
Liong also noted that the Commission on Audit had not even declared that there was overpricing in the procurements made.
“Ako po ay umaasa na ang lahat ng kinuukulan ay maliliwanagan sa huli, uulitin ko ang aking panawagan kung may nagkasala sabihin nila kung sino, paano, ano ang ebidensya at iyun ang panagutin, hindi ang mga inosenteng tao katulad ko na sumusunod lamang sa batas,” Liong said in the statement.
(I hope that authorities will get clarity. I repeat my appeal, if someone was at fault, they should say who, how, what is the evidence, and make that person accountable, instead of people like me who only followed the law.)
'NOT A PENALTY'
In a statement, the DOH said it respects the decision of the Ombudsman to place several of its officials under preventive suspension.
But the agency stressed the role of DOH and RITM was "limited to providing technical inputs as end-users in the conduct of the procurement of commodities for the COVID-19 pandemic".
"The DOH would like to clarify that the preventive suspension is not a penalty imposed on the officials of the Department," the agency said.
"This is a procedure legally done to ease the investigation without the influence of the individuals in question."
The DOH vowed to cooperate in the investigation and urged the public to reserve judgement until the probe is resolved.
The PS-DBM also said it recognizes the authority of the Ombudsman.
"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," it added.
Meanwhile, Sen. Risa Hontiveros in a statement lauded the Ombudsman's move, saying it "validated our Senate findings that the evidence of guilt is strong."
"My hope is that the investigation will also look into the masterminds behind this modus, well beyond the foot soldiers and mid-level officials... Sa panahon ng pandemya, pinagkakitaan ang biniling kagamitan na sana ay panlaban dito... Let justice be served. This investigation is just the beginning," she said.