Senators focus on Pharmally officials as Cabinet execs barred

Job Manahan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 06 2021 12:03 AM

Senators blast 'unconstitutionality' of Duterte order

MANILA - With government officials under the executive department absent in Tuesday's Senate hearing, senators were left with no choice but to thrust a bulk of their questions at Pharmally's executives, with a lawmaker even delving into very "personal" queries.

President Rodrigo Duterte this week issued a memorandum prohibiting his aides from joining the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee hearing, after he criticized the lawmakers' supposed disrespect of resource persons. 

This led Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, former budget secretary Christopher Lloyd Lao, and other officials to be absent in the day's hearing.

Only Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) Commissioner Ceasar Dulay, officials of the Bureau of Customs, Civil Service and Commission on Audit Chairman Michael Aguinaldo, along with Pharmally executives were present. 

Dulay went offline at the middle of the hearing.

Even the President’s ally at the chamber felt the absence of the government officials.

“I’m passionate about the Government Procurement Policy Board
… Andito po ba ang taga-DTI? Anybody from the DTI?” Sen. Francis Tolentino inquired.

But their absence magnified the presence of Pharmally executives Mohit Dargani, Linconn Ong, and Huang Tzu Yen, as lawmakers sought documents and important information from them for follow-ups. 

In one instance, when Blue Ribbon Committee Chairman Richard Gordon questioned former Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado regarding official receipts supposed to be issued by the PS-DBM, the discussion went into a dead end after the latter passed the ball to Lao, who snubbed the hearing. 

"Actually, I'm the one releasing the funds, it will be really irregular kung makikialam ako kasi baka sasabihin na mayroon akong personal involvement," Avisado explained. 

"As far as I know they issue receipts. Maybe PS-DBM can clarify that," Overall Deputy Ombudsman Warren Liong said. 

This led to Gordon questioning Huang about the letter of credit worth P500 million at the UnionBank, which he earlier recanted. 

But the lawmaker still sought clarifications, this time on where Huang got the money to make the initial purchases for Pharmally.

"What we did is we pay partially, because there were scheduled delivery for the products, we will pay for the amount it is scheduled to be delivered and when there’s a sequence of cash flow pending," Huang said.

"So we will pay for some to receive some back and we pay for it again. So that’s what we did. It was difficult, very difficult," he added.

"We didn’t utilize that certificate at all. I said there is but we never utilized it."

LEACHON TALKS, PERSONAL QUESTIONS ASKED

At the end of the hearing neared, Gordon asked Dargani and Huang about their personal lives. 

Ong, 33, denied he owns a cement factory in Pangasinan, as assumed by the lawmaker.

He also denied that his family is known in the province: "Parang wala naman po... Simpleng tao lang po."

Ong allegedly bought a P13.5-million Porsche sports car after Pharmally secured the deal with government. 

Gordon also questioned why Dargani needed a Philippine and Spanish passport, alleging that this might be his "escape plan." 

Dargani said he is also a Spanish citizen, as his mother is Spanish.

Aside from these, Dargani was asked about the "departure" of his father from their home. 

"What precipitated the loss of your father in your family?" he asked Dargani. 

The Pharmally official said "he was not getting along with my mom." 

"I believe this is a very personal and private matter, I don't know what it has to do with the investigation," he said.

Despite this, the lawmaker pressed for more answers, and asked Dargani if his father is still in the Philippines. 

Gordon said he only asked it because a friend of the two went to him and talked about their parents. 

"Ang sabi nila nami-miss niya daw ang tatay niya. Tinanong ko yan kasi nami-miss daw niya ang tatay niya," the lawmaker said, citing his own experience about his parents. 

Dr. Tony Leachon, who has been attending the hearings but was only consulted a few times during the span of the 10 previous sessions, was also asked by Gordon about his thoughts on the government response.

Leachon, a former government adviser, said it is important that officials be accountable for their actions as the country continues its battle against COVID-19.

Video from the Senate of the Philippines

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon pointed out that Duterte's memo only barred government officials from the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee hearing, not the House's. 

"This has all the red flags of unconstitutionality. It only covers the Senate... this particular Blue Ribbon hearing. I cannot see any other memorandum as blatantly unconstitutional as what we have before us," Drilon said. 

Senator Panfilo Lacson, meanwhile, described the memo as "Gordon-specific."

Gordon has been at the receiving end of Duterte's criticisms as the probe continued.

Duterte earlier alleged that the Philippine Red Cross, chaired by Gordon, erred multiple times in conducting COVID-19 tests in the Philippines. 

Gordon meanwhile said he does not know why Duterte still defends former economic adviser Michael Yang and former budget undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao, a fraternity brother.

--- With reports from Sherrie Ann Torres, ABS-CBN News