MANILA (UPDATE) - The Office of the Ombudsman has expanded its investigation on alleged "lapses" in the health department's COVID-19 response to include Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and other health officials.
In a statement, Ombudsman Samuel Martires said he has formed two more teams of investigators and ordered criminal and administrative charges filed against Department of Health (DOH) officials who had given investigators a "runaround" in an earlier probe on issues raised over the purchase of COVID-19 test kits.
"I directed the creation of two more investigating teams who will jointly investigate alleged irregularities and anomalies committed by DOH officials and employees, including Health Sec. Francisco Duque, in relation to the response of the DOH during this pandemic," said Martires in a statement.
Among those to be covered in the investigation are:
- delays in the procurement of personal protective equipment and other medical gear for health workers
- "alleged lapses and irregularities" that caused deaths among health workers
- delays in the processing and release of benefits for medical workers who died or got severely ill due to COVID-19
- the "confusing and delayed reporting" of coronavirus cases and deaths.
The Ombudsman had started its investigation before the coronavirus lockdown in the middle of March to look into questions on the DOH purchase of 100,000 test kits and issues concerning test kits developed by the University of the Philippines.
"But our investigators were given a runaround by some DOH officials and personnel by referring us from one department or office to another," said Martires.
Because of this, he authorized the investigation team to "file the necessary criminal and/or administrative case" against any official "who fails or refuses" to cooperate with the Ombudsman investigation, and those who obstruct or mislead the probe.
Duque and the agency has been drawing criticism over the coronavirus response, as cases in the country continued to rise amid eased quarantine restrictions.
The health chief survived resignation calls in April and then received condemnation earlier this month for passing the blame on his staff over delays in the release of cash benefits for health workers who died or suffered severe symptoms of COVID-19. He later apologized and acknowledged responsibility.
Malacañang, meanwhile, urged the Department of Health to cooperate with the Ombudsman's investigation.
Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said the Palace respects the Ombudsman's decision to conduct an investigation as it highlighted its independence.
"The Ombudsman, as we all know, is an independent constitutional body; thus, we will let the process run its course as we enjoin Secretary Duque and the entire DOH bureaucracy to cooperate with the investigation and respect the orders of the OMB," Roque said.
Several senators welcomed the investigation, citing irregularities long plaguing the department.
"About time. I can only hope that this time around, the investigation will bear fruit and find those concerned liable and suffer the consequences of their misdeeds in taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis for self-aggrandizement unlike the agricultural smuggling case that I personally filed against Faeldon et al which continues to languish in the dustbin of the Ombudsman for an unusually long period of time," said Lacson
He was referring to economic sabotage and graft charges he filed against former Bureau of Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon in 2017.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, meanwhile, said officials should be held accountable for their handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
"We have seen irregularities or negligence in the purchase of PPEs and even in the pricing of Philhealth’s COVID-19 test package. The Ombudsman should look into these," he said.
"The lapses they committed have exposed to risk the welfare of the entire nation. Secretary Duque, in particular, has failed in his job. The people have every right to demand accountability," he said.
Senate health committee chair Sen. Christopher Go said the Ombudsman's investigation is a matter of "constitutional duty."
"The Filipino people deserve a fair and impartial investigation in order to shed light on these alleged anomalies and also for concerned officials to have an opportunity to clear their name. Karapatan ng taumbayan na malaman ang katotohanan (The public has the right to know the truth)," he said in a statement.
He said funds allocated for a health crisis such as COVID-19 "must be accounted for up to the last centavo."
Senators earlier demanded Duque's resignation for his "failure of leadership" in addressing the coronavirus crisis, but President Rodrigo Duterte decided to retain him as health chief.
- reports from Adrian Ayalin, Arianne Merez and Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News