Ombudsman suspends PS-DBM, DOH officials over Pharmally deals

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 23) — The Office of the Ombudsman has issued a suspension order against 33 past and present procurement service and health officials over allegedly irregular transactions with controversial government supplier Pharmally Pharmaceutical for COVID-19 test kits in 2020.

In the March 20 order released to the media on Thursday, Ombudsman Samuel Martires placed former and current officials of the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM), as well as of the Department of Health (DOH), under a six-month preventive suspension pending investigation.

Among those named is former PS-DBM Procurement Group Director Warren Rex Liong, who is now Overall Deputy Ombudsman. Former PS-DBM chief Lloyd Christopher Lao was also in the list.

The suspension order stemmed from an administrative case filed against them “for grave misconduct, gross neglect of duty, serious dishonesty, and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service” over three deals with Pharmally.

The transactions were for a combined 51,400 units of RT-PCR test kits, with costs totaling over ₱4 billion. Two deals were signed in April 2020 while one was dated June that year.

“After a careful evaluation of the records, this Office finds compelling reasons to place the following respondents under preventive suspension pending investigation of the instant case,” read the Ombudsman order.

“The overwhelming documentary proof shows that respondents' evidence of guilt is strong,” it added.

According to Martires, the gravity of the offenses, coupled with the seriousness of the participation of the accused, would warrant their removal from the service if the allegations are proven true.

The following individuals, who were with PS-DBM at the time of the transactions, were named in the list:

- Lloyd Christopher Lao

- Warren Rex Liong

- Christine Marie Suntay

- Fatimah Amsrha Penaflor

- Joshua Laure

- Earvin Jay Alparaque

- Julius Santos

- Paul Jasper De Guzma

- Dickson Panti

- Karen Anne Requintina

- Rodevie Cruz

- Webster Laureñana

- Sharon Baile

- Gerelyn Vergara

- Abelardo Gonzales

- Jez Charlemagne Arago

- Nicole John Cabueños

- Ray-ann Sorilla

- Chamel Fiji Melo

- Allan Raul Catalan

- Mervin Ian Tanquintic

- Jorge Mendoza III

- Jasonmer Uayan

- August Ylangan

Meanwhile, the following were those from the DOH:

- Nestor Santiago, Jr.

- Crispinita Valdez

- Amado Tandoc

- Lei Lanna Dancel

- Dave Tangcalagan

- Jhobert Bernal

- Kenneth Aristotle Punzalan

- Rose Marasigan

- Maria Carmela Reyes

The Ombudsman said the suspension would help ensure that the position and possible influence of the accused will not be used to affect the outcome of the case.

In a statement, PS-DBM Executive Director Dennis Santiago gave assurance that his agency will implement the suspension order within the specified time frame.

“We join the Office of the Ombudsman in its quest for truth and upholding public trust,” he wrote.

The DOH also said it respects the Ombudsman’s decision and will comply with all procedures.

However, it vouched for the integrity of its implicated officials, whom it said have been with the agency for decades and “have played significant roles in the country’s COVID-19 response.”

“We would also like to reiterate that the role of the DOH and the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) was limited to providing technical inputs as end-users in the conduct of the procurement of commodities for the COVID-19 pandemic,” the department said.

It urged the public to reserve judgment until the conclusion of the probe.

Ombudsman official Liong – who served as PS-DBM procurement group director – also maintained he has been wrongfully accused.

He said he did not do anything questionable in relation to the supply deals, and did not earn from the transactions.

“Gusto ko ding ipaliwanag na hindi ako ang pinuno ng opisina o miyembro ng bids and awards committee," he said. "Noong panahon na ito ay bago pa ako sa trabaho at walang impluwensya sa kinalalabasan ng anumang pagbili. Ako po ay nagtrabaho lamang sa aking maikling pananatili sa posisyon."

[Translation: I also want to clarify that I wasn't head of an office or a member of the bids and awards committee. That time, I was new to the work and had no influence over procurement deals. I only did my job during the short time I was in that position.]

Liong added all he had done was in accordance with the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act.

“Kaya ang hamon ko po ay ituro ng kinauukulan kung sino talaga ang mga kumita dito. Unfair na madamay ang mga inosenteng tao sa kasong ito,” he said.

[Translation: That’s why I challenge authorities to identify the people who really profited from this. It’s unfair for innocent individuals to be tagged in this case.]

In 2021, the Commission on Audit flagged the DOH for “deficiencies” in its management of pandemic funds, saying these contributed to the challenges faced by the agency in responding to the health crisis.

Among those at the center of the corruption scandal was Pharmally, accused of cornering billions of pesos in supply deals with the help of former and incumbent government officials.

In February 2022, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee recommended graft, corruption, and plunder charges against Pharmally executives and several public officials, including Lao and former Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, for transferring more than ₱41 billion from the DOH’s COVID-19 fund to the PS-DBM, a portion of which was used to purchase medical goods from Pharmally.