Senate panel recommends charges vs. Duque, Pharmally execs over pandemic deal

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 1)— The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee has recommended the filing of criminal charges against Health Secretary Francisco Duque and several others linked to the government's allegedly anomalous purchase of COVID-19 pandemic supplies.

In the partial committee report released on Tuesday, senators tagged Duque for violations of the anti-graft and corruption law, as well as plunder over the supposed misuse of the crisis response funds.

The lawmakers particularly noted how the Health chief moved over ₱40 billion from his agency to the Department of Budget and Management's Procurement Service (PS-DBM) to supposedly hasten the purchase of medical supplies.

"Even after the multi-billion peso inter-agency transfer, DOH was purchasing supplies at considerably lower prices than that of PS-DBM," read the 113-page committee report.

Duque, for his part, said if ever the report will adopted, his camp will fully cooperate with the court's processes as they have "nothing to hide."

Charge Lao, deport Yang

The Blue Ribbon committee also recommended charges against former DBM Undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao, former presidential economic adviser and Chinese businessman Michael Yang, and several other officials of the embattled Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corporation.

Lao was the head of the PS-DBM when it awarded the supply contracts to Pharmally in 2020. Yang, on the other hand, was tagged as the firm's financier.

The Senate's draft report also recommended the deportation of Yang, whom the committee called out for being evasive during hearings.

"Financing the Pharmally contracts was a sure way of washing his cash. He, for all intents and purposes, is the co-conductor of this horrible mess," it said.

Yang's camp maintained that the report findings "have no legal basis." Atty. Ferdinand Topacio, who represents Pharmally executives, also expressed confidence that his clients would be exonerated.

Overpriced, unqualified

The panel lamented how public funds were "plundered" as the country continued to struggle due to the health crisis.

It also highlighted how the government purchased overpriced materials from what it labeled as an "unqualified and undercapitalized" firm.

"Instead of ensuring that crucial supplies were made available, the public servants who were supposed to be responsible for the people's welfare lined their pockets," the report further noted. "There is always an opportunity in crisis, indeed."

Duterte not off the hook?

Senators also noted that charges must be considered against President Rodrigo Duterte when he steps down from office.

"After all, he was the one who appointed all the people who approved these transactions and aggressively protected and defended them when they were caught in this horrible crime against our people," they said.

The chief executive also "betrayed public trust" for defending and not holding his appointees accountable amid the Pharmally controversy, the lawmakers added.

On Monday, the House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability also recommended charges against a number of Pharmally officials over the government deal. However, the panel said it found no overpricing in the purchase of the supplies.

Both the Senate and House are expected to endorse their respective reports to the Department of Justice and the Office of the Ombudsman.

"On the part of the DOJ, it will make a preliminary evaluation to determine if there is a need to refer the reports to the NBI (National Bureau of Investigation) for validation of the evidence. If in the affirmative, the NBI will be directed to conduct its investigation and build, if necessary, on the evidence already gathered by the Congress," Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said.

CNN Philippines' Eimor Santos and Alyssa Rola contributed to this report.