MANILA - Sen. Panfilo Lacson on Wednesday said the former top aide of Philippine Health Insurance Corp (PhilHealth) president Ricardo Morales "backed out" from divulging irregularities in the state-run insurance firm at the last minute, after possibly being "harassed."
Etrobal Laborte, who resigned as Morales' head executive assistant in July, logged on to the Senate's videoconferencing platform but later on begged off from joining the hearing.
"Nag-log in siya sa hearing, biglang nag logout. 'Wag na lang daw. Kung puwede 'wag na daw siyang makisali," Lacson said in an interview on Teleradyo's Failon Ngayon.
(He logged into the hearing, the suddenly logged out. He said he didn't want to participate anymore. He begged off from joining.)
This was not the first time Laborte suddenly changed his mind about giving information on alleged scams and corruption woes in PhilHealth, the senator said.
"Nakiusap sa'kin na baka puwedeng mag-audience siya sa'kin," the senator said, adding that the meeting was scheduled about 3 weeks ago.
(He asked for an audience.)
"Ang unang attempt, siya ang excited... Siya ang enthusiastic. Hindi ko nga siya kilala. Siya nag contact sa amin," Lacson told reporters in an online press conference.
(In our first attempt to meet, Laborte was excited. He was enthusiastic. I did not even know him. He was the one who contacted us.)
"Last minute, nagpasabi siya na under threat siya kaya hindi na natuloy 'yung aming meeting," he said.
(At the last minute, he sent word that he is under threat so he had to cancel our meeting.)
Lacson said someone seems to be tailing him, according to Lacson.
"May event na nag-intervene ibig sabihin... baka yesterday [kaya siya nag logout sa hearing], ganun din," he said.
(It means there was an event that intervened... perhaps that was also what happened yesterday that's why he logged out of the hearing.)
Laborte was allegedly among the PhilHealth officials who figured in a shouting match with the insurance firm's executives during a Zoom meeting last week.
He was the official who flagged several "discrepancies" in the PhilHealth's IT budget.
During the Senate hearing, Morales told senators that he "assumed" that there was nothing unusual about the allegedly overpriced items in the budget because he was "not an IT expert."
Laborte's sudden refusal to testify about corruption in PhilHealth is a "big loss" to the Senate investigation, Lacson said.
"Marami siyang alam," he said.
(He knows a lot.)
"Unang-una, nagre-research siya. Wala siyang affidavit na sinubmit pero nagbigay lang siya ng dokumento," he said.
(First of all, he has been researching. He did not submit an affidavit, but he gave us documents.)
The documents Laborte submitted showed that Morales approved a proposal to procure switches that we overpriced by about P3 million.
Resigned PhilHealth anti-fraud official Thorrson Keith also backed out from physically appearing in the Senate, saying he would rather participate through videoconferencing.
"Natatakot daw sila kaya kung puwede hindi na pumunta," Lacson said.
(They said they are scared so they asked if they can just participate online.)
"Ramdam natin na mayroong harassment... Kaya sila i-harass," the senator said without naming particular officials.
(We feel that there is harassment... They are prone to being harassed.)
Lacson said he would urge other senators to give whistleblowers legislative immunity, which would prevent any party from using testimonies in the Senate against witnesses.
Lacson, a former police chief, said he would also try to convince Laborte, a fellow Philippine Military Academy (PMA) graduate, to reconsider and appear before the Senate.
"May kultura kami sa PMA... may dividing line ang pagiging squealer sa pagtulong sa isang investigation," Lacson said.
(We have a culture in the PMA... there is a dividing line between being a squealer and helping in an investigation.)
"Sabi ko sa kaniya (Laborte), kung tama 'yung pinaglalaban mo, hindi squealing ang tawag diyan. Advocacy 'yan, tumutulong ka," the senator said.
(I told Laborte that if he is fighting for what is right, that is not squealing. It is called an advocacy because you are helping.)
While the Senate may subpoena Laborte and other PhilHealth insiders who have been hesitant to share information with senators, Lacson said he would rather "maintain the goodwill."
"Ayaw naman namin sila ilagay on the spot. Marami sa kanila takot sa sinsabi nilang mafia dahil easily puwede silang ipatapon, ipasuspinde o kasuhan," he said.
(We don't want to put them on the spot. A lot of them are scared of the so-called PhilHealth mafia because they can easily be reassigned, suspended or charged in court.)
The Senate will also be open to providing security detail for whistleblowers who will request it, he said.
The chamber is expected to resume investigations into alleged irregularities in PhilHealth next week.
Officials from the Commission on Audit, the Department of Information and Communications Technology, and the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission are expected to be summoned to verify claims of PhilHealth officials.