'You have destroyed DOH's honor': Duque laments 'premature' release of COA report on COVID-19 funds

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 17) — Embattled health chief Francisco Duque III on Tuesday decried what he described as the premature release of the Commission on Audit report which detailed "deficiencies" in the Department of Health's handling of ₱67.3-billion worth of pandemic funds.

In a House of Representatives panel inquiry into the COA findings, Duque said the DOH has been "bloodied and bludgeoned" by corruption allegations even before it had time to submit the documents needed to explain its side.

"Winarak na ninyo kami, eh. Winarak na ninyo ang dangal ng DOH [You have destroyed us. You have destroyed the DOH's honor]," Duque said, turning emotional during the virtual hearing conducted by the House committee on public accounts.

He said he and other members of the department have since lost sleep over the matter. According to Duque, COA could have given them more leeway, considering that they are operating under a state of public health emergency.

"This is really unfair, unjust that this judgment had been handed down clearly without giving the DOH the full 60 days within which we should have given our rejoinder and reported on the actions on their recommendations," he said.

The department is given 60 days from the receipt of the annual audit report to submit a rejoinder and action plan listing the steps it has done to address the COA findings.

Duque also said he has received reports that explanations submitted by DOH personnel were not acknowledged by COA.

"Sabi ng mga tao ko, marami na ngang binigay na mga kasagutan kaso hindi naman daw ina-acknowledge o hindi isinasama sa kanilang mga report," he said. "Eh, hindi naman siguro tama 'to. Tatlong beses na nga raw nag-meeting."

[Translation: My subordinates told me they have submitted several responses, but these weren't acknowledged and included by COA in their reports. I don't think that's right. They said they even met with COA three times.]

No due process?

Rep. Rodante Marcoleta backed the health chief, saying the DOH should have first been accorded "due process" and the time "to complete the entire picture."

"I think it is very irresponsible for the COA auditors to have disclosed this in the paper, meron pa palang compliance papers na hinihingi ang COA," Marcoleta said.

However, COA chairman Michael Aguinaldo said the 60-day period is for the DOH to respond to the recommendations regarding the findings. This means it doesn't refer to the time given to the agency to resolve the deficiencies before the audit report for 2020 is released.

In the first place, he said, there had also been "a lot of due process followed" before the report was issued.

"There are constant meetings with the management, meron pa 'yang [there was also an] exit conference. So, it is not correct at all to say there is no due process," he said. "It is not correct to say hindi sila pinakinggan [they were not heard]."

He noted the annual report, which is required by law, is also time-bound and usually has to come out by June 30 of every year.

"Hindi namin pwedeng sabihin...wala pa kaming conclusion doon sa 20% ng budget kasi wala pang nagsa-submit [We can't just say we don't have a conclusion regarding 20% of the budget because documents haven't been submitted yet]," he said.

The COA head also pointed out there was no mention in their report that the DOH funds were lost to corruption. The department, he reiterated, can still submit documents and justify their transactions.

"In fact, we have relaxed so many regulations in order to address the needs dito sa pandemic na 'to [during this pandemic]. So, we're not closed to that," he said. "But of course, we still have our duty at the same time to ensure that funds are actually accounted for."

For former COA Commissioner Heidi Mendoza, the commission must still hold agencies accountable even in the middle of a pandemic.

"Kulang sa tao ang Commission on Audit... pero sa dami ng gagawin kailangan sundin 'yung maraming proseso kaya kailangan magtulungan na maisubmit ng dokumento kasi hindi naman pwede habangbuhay maghintay ang auditors," Mendoza told CNN Philippines' News.PH.

[Translation: The Commission on Audit lacks manpower but with its many responsibilities, it has to follow many processes that is why there needs to be coordination in submitting documents since the auditors cannot wait forever for them.]

She also pointed out that the DOH is an established agency which has been audited in the past.

"Ang medyo nagiging kakaiba ay panahon ng pandemic [The difference is there is a pandemic] where we need to balance flexibility and accountability, but the question is to whatextent do you bend accountability principles for the sake of flexibility?" she added.