No DOJ, NBI probe yet despite admissions at the Senate on Pharmally

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 28 2021 08:44 PM

Pharmally Pharmaceuticals Corporation Executive Linconn Ong Senate PRIB Photos/File
Members of the Office of the Sergeant-At-Arms escort Pharmally Pharmaceuticals Corporation Executive Linconn Ong inside the Senate building Tuesday, September 21, 2021. Ong was cited in contempt and ordered to be arrested by the Blue Ribbon Committee for evading questions during the September 10, 2021 hybrid inquiry on the 2020 Commission on Audit report and other issues related to budget utilization of the Department of Health (DOH), especially its expenditures related to the fight against COVID-19. Senate PRIB Photos/File

MANILA — Expect no investigations just yet on the part of the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) on contracts entered into by Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. with the Philippine government, despite revelations in the Senate probe.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said Tuesday he would rather wait for a complaint to be filed. 

“All that is needed is for any interested person to file the appropriate complaint,” he told reporters in a message exchange.

Justice reporters have been asking Guevarra for days if he would order the NBI to look into the admissions made in the Senate probe by Pharmally officials, the latest of which is the admission of regulations officer Krizle Grace Mago that they ordered the changing of certification stickers of face shields, effectively “swindling” the government.

She confirmed the testimony of a witness that Pharmally officials told them to repack substandard, dirty, yellowish and wet face shields.

This is on top of other revelations such as P5 million the Philippine government allegedly lost in commissions for the purchase of face masks, its supposed failure to deliver complete RT-PCR tests which purportedly contributed to delays in COVID-19 testing, and the luxury vehicles Pharmally executives bought after bagging contracts with the budget department’s Procurement Service.

Guevarra acknowledged that "tampering with the expiry date of a product is a violation of art 40(a) of the Consumer Act.”

The provision prohibits the “manufacture, importation, exportation, sale, offering for sale, distribution or transfer of any food, drug, device or cosmetic that is adulterated or mislabeled.”

“A device is deemed mislabeled if the labeling is false or misleading,” Guevarra explained. 

But is this enough for the DOJ to launch its own probe?

Guevarra said the DOJ cannot act as both complainant and investigator.

“If the complaint is criminal in nature, it’s the DOJ that will conduct the preliminary investigation. It cannot be the complainant at the same time,” he said.

In the past, Guevarra promptly ordered the NBI to probe pandemic-related issues like fake news, sale of vaccine slots and hoarding of supplies. 

It also initiated, through the NBI, motu proprio or on its own initiative probes into high-profile killings — also criminal in nature where DOJ prosecutors at the National Prosecution Service later on handled preliminary investigations and eventual prosecution.

But Guevarra did not directly answer the queries.

“It all depends on the amount of evidence in any given case. If the evidence appears enough, the complainant may file directly with the Prosecutor’s Office. If there is need for a case build-up, further investigation by the NBI may be called for, and the NBI itself may eventually be the complainant,” he said without addressing why the DOJ can’t order the NBI to conduct its own probe.

“When I said above that all that is needed is for any affected or interested party to file a complaint, am I not clear as to what I meant?” he told reporters who continued pressing him for answers.

“Now who do you think is the proper complainant for being given mislabeled devices?” he added.

On Monday, Guevarra said he would “rather see the bigger picture” when asked about the Senate probe.

“We don’t have to wait till [until] the hearings are terminated. But we want to be sure that the parties concerned are given a fair chance to say what they need to say,” he said.

Pharmally had bagged more than P10 billion worth of contracts since last year for the provision of supplies to combat the pandemic despite having less than a million pesos worth in paid up capital.

Its officials later admitted at the Senate probe that they had to borrow money from Davao-based businessman Michael Yang, a former economic adviser of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Yang also stood as guarantor to Chinese suppliers.

These details were not disclosed in the company’s financial documents — a red flag according to some accountants and procurement experts.

The Senate has so far conducted 9 hearings on the issue.

Duterte and the members of the House panel on good governance have repeatedly defended the deals, saying the Bayanihan laws exempted these transactions from restrictions of standard bidding procedures because these were supposedly emergency purchases.

Duterte said the deals with Pharmally were above board.

Some senators alleged that Pharmally offered overpriced supplies and suspect that it was favored by government because of its ties with Yang.

Sen. Richard Gordon, chair of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee that is leading the probe, said public funds supposedly wasted on anomalous transactions could have been used for the benefits of health workers battling the COVID-19 pandemic in the frontlines.

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