MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman said on Wednesday Sen. Manny Pacquiao may have been "absent" or "preoccupied" when officials discussed expenses for the COVID-19 crisis, which the lawmaker flagged for possible corruption, fanning a word war between the Chief Executive and the lawmaker, a once close ally.
Duterte on Monday threatened that he would expose Pacquiao as a liar, after he said that the government is three times more corrupt than previous administrations.
In response, Pacquiao said the health department was on top of his corruption list, and sought for a probe into the agency's purchase of personal protective equipment and test kits at the height of the country’s COVID-19 fight.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and other officials have disclosed pandemic expenses in a Senate hearing earlier this June, noted Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque.
"Absent po siguro si Senator Pacquiao nung nagprisinta yung mga Cabinet secretaries. Or kung hindi siya absent, he may have been preoccupied with something else," Roque said in a press conference.
(Senator Pacquiao was perhaps absent when the Cabinet secretaries presented this. Or if he was not absent, he may have been preoccupied with something else.)
"Nanggaling na po si Secretary Duque sa Senado. Nag-explain na po siya doon at wala naman pong kasong naisampa matapos po ‘yong eksplenasyon ni Secretary Duque," he added.
(Secretary Duque has been to the Senate. He explained there and no case was filed against him after that.)
Pacquiao has yet to respond to requests for comment on Roque's latest statement.
Duque on Tuesday said he was "disheartened" over Pacquiao's allegation, noting that the agency has always submitted to the government’s auditing efforts.
In a statement, the health department said it is ready to undergo another round of auditing to pinpoint where its funds went, as it downplayed Pacquiao's allegations as “baseless.”
"We submit ourselves to inquiries from legislators as this is a part of the checks and balances in our government. I have always been a champion of good governance and the DOH has always been transparent with regard to our fund utilization," Duque was quoted in the statement as saying.
Pacquiao has been seen as among Duterte's strongest backers and a possible successor when the latter's 6-year term expires next June.
But using an expletive in his strongest language yet against Pacquiao, Duterte said on Monday that if the boxing champ-turned-senator did not back his corruption claims, he would be "playing politics".
Pacquiao said he accepted Duterte's challenge, but said it was disheartening that they were fighting over the issue of corruption.
"May mga naging pagkakamali ako sa buhay na aking itinuwid at itinama nguni’t dalawang bagay ang kaya kong panghawakan. Hindi ako tiwali at hindi ako sinungaling," Pacquiao said in a statement on Tuesday.
(I had mistakes in life that I corrected but I can hold on to two things. I am not corrupt and a liar.)
Early this month, Duterte criticized Pacquiao's "shallow" foreign policy knowledge, after the senator said he found the leader's stand on the South China Sea as "lacking" and "disheartening."
Duterte remains popular in the Philippines. Political allies are urging him to run as vice president when his term ends. His daughter is also seen among his possible successors.
"Pulitika po talaga, pulitika po ang katapusan nito," Roque said of the rift between the President and Pacquiao.
"At tingin ko, ang maghuhusga, ang taongbayan, kung sino talaga ang mamumuno sa 2022," he added.
(Politics will be the end of this. And I think the people will decide who will lead in 2022.)
In 2016, Duterte won the presidency campaigning on a promise to fight corruption, crime, and illegal drugs.
But his administration has been dogged by scandals and allegations of graft and cover-ups in state agencies ranging from prisons, the state insurer, immigration, airports and customs, to police and the drugs enforcement agency, few of which led to convictions or high-profile resignations.
The Philippines also fell 14 notches to 113th spot among 180 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index in 2019. Last year, the country slipped to more spots to 115th.
Duterte is not eligible for re-election, but fulfilling his campaign pledge on corruption could help the chances of his chosen successor in the 2022 elections.
— With a report from Reuters
Video courtesy of PTV