Philippines: Senate Hearings Or Witch Hunt?

Filipinos line up to receive cash aid from the national government during the enhanced community quarantine at a basketball court in Manila on 11 August, 2021. (AFP Photo)

Even though several times over the Chairman of the Commission on Audit (COA), Atty. Michael G Aguinaldo and COA Supervising Auditor for the DOH (Department of Health), Rhodora Ugay have already testified and expressed that the COA report did not mention any findings of funds lost to corruption, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee under the chairmanship of Senator Richard “Dick” Gordon is still pursuing hearings which many Filipinos consider absurd given that all critical questions have been answered and clarified by government officials. 

Congressman Alfredo Garbin of AKO BICOL Partylist has articulated during the House Hearing on DOH Supplies last Wednesday (15 September, 2021) that, “Basically, the Bayanihan 1 allows the President to simply look to the supplier, pay, and get the receipt. This is what we are trying to establish. First, we were able to establish that there was no overpricing. Second, we need to come up with a laudable conclusion that the purchase was in accordance with the law.”

Garbin concluded his statement by saying that, “I am convinced that the purchase, the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) and face masks was in accordance with the law.”

The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, also known as the Bayanihan Act 1, which is officially designated as Republic Act (RA) No. 11469, is a law in the Philippines that was enacted in March 2020 granting the Philippine President additional authority to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The same law has granted President Rodrigo Duterte under Section 4(k) to “undertake the procurement of goods such as personal protective equipment (PPE); gloves; gowns; masks; googles; face shields; surgical equipment and supplies; laboratory equipment and its reagents; medical equipment and devices support and other medical supplies for COVID-19, as need arises, in the most expeditious manner, as exemptions from the provisions of Republic Act No. 9184 or the Government Procurement Reform Act” and other relevant laws.”    

Furthermore, Section 7 (Construction or Interpretation) of Bayanihan 1 Law states that “Nothing herein shall be construed as an impairment, restriction or modification of the provisions of the Constitution. In case the exercise of the powers herein granted conflicts with other statutes, orders, rules, or regulations, the provisions of this Act shall prevail.”

Even under RA 9184 or otherwise known as the Government Procurement Reform Act, the government is allowed to pursue “negotiated procurement,” which refers to exemptions from the regular bidding procedures if the situation calls for it. Section 53(b) (Negotiated Procurement) of the said law states that “In case of imminent danger to life or property during a state of calamity, or when time is of the essence arising from natural or man-made calamities or other cause where immediate action is necessary to prevent damage to or loss of life or property, or to restore vital public service, infrastructure facilities, and other public utilities.”    

Nonetheless, despite the explanations and admissions of the COA and members of the PS-DBM that all transactions related to the Philippine government’s procurement of PPEs and face masks during the early days of the pandemic, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee has decided to continue with its hearings.

House Hearing On DOH Supplies Purchase

During the deliberation in the House of Representatives (HOR) Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability hearing last Wednesday, House Deputy Speaker Congressman Rodante Marcoleta, Party-Representative for SAGIP vented that it seems the Senate refuses to trust the testimonies of COA officials. 

This is despite the fact that the COA Chairman himself had already clarified that there was no overpricing or corruption and that the PS-DBM followed the pertinent laws in the emergency procurement of PPEs and face masks during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. 

Marcoleta said, “Ang pagpapatuloy ng pagdinig ng Senado ay katibayan lamang na hindi pinaniniwalaan ng Senate Blue Ribbon Committee ang admissions o ang COA report (the pursuance of the Senate hearings more particularly in the Senate Blue Ribbon committee only proves that the Senate does not believe in the admissions or in the COA report).” 

Marcoleta said the fact that the Senate is still conducting hearings only means that the Senators do not believe in the COA report while stressing that the COA stands in its admissions that there’s no corruption nor overpricing or ghost delivery in the procurement of medical supplies for COVID-19 done by the Philippine government. 

House Deputy Speaker Marcoleta further reiterated during the House hearing on 17 September, 2021 that, “Kung nais talaga ng mambabatas (referring to the Senators) na malaman kung may anomalya sa pagbili ng gobyerno ng medical supplies para sa pandemya, ang dapat na tinatanong nila ay ang mga miyembro ng PS-DBM sapagkat yun talaga ang nag-implement ng procurement ng needed medical supplies (if these Senators want to know if there’s anomaly in the government procurement of medical supplies for the COVID-19 pandemic, they should be asking members of PS-DBM as this was the agency that implemented the procurement of the needed medical supplies). ” 

This is in view of the fact that the ongoing Senate hearings seem to be in a dishevelled state of affairs. The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee has now turned its attention to the executives of the Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corporation; looking for some possible connection between the company and officials of the Duterte administration.

Hindsight And Perspective

In the eyes of the majority of Filipinos, the ongoing senate hearings are counter-productive in the country’s fight against the pandemic. Instead of focusing on the COVID-19 response, the attention of all related government officials and agencies like the DOH are now focused on answering questions and producing documents for a group of Senators who are trying to discredit President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. 

House Deputy Speaker Marcoleta in his privilege speech on 6 September, 2021 pointed out that, “we are still in the middle of the pandemic where a well-coordinated, cohesive and a collective will, with the full support of a united citizenry, is the only chance for us to survive and defeat this national scourge – with the grace of God.” 

Instead of helping the current administration manage the health crisis by pushing for the necessary legislative measures that will put the Philippine economy in a trajectory towards quick economic recovery, Senators of the Republic like Richard “Dick” Gordon, and Franklin Drilon are on a witch-hunt against President Duterte and his administration. 

To date, nothing conclusive or definitive has been drawn from the Senate Blue Ribbon hearings except speculations, conjectures, and assumptions. These senate hearings are just a publicity stunt for media mileage at the expense of the people and the country.  

Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea pointed out in his social media post addressed to the Senators that the Office of the President religiously rendered a weekly report to the Senate and House for all purchases and all other activities related to the pandemic. 

“Except for a few, none of you bothered to give a comment on those reports. Perhaps, had you done so, you could have avoided calling for a blue-ribbon hearing which has ripped a lot of time, effort, and money for the government to the prejudice of the more serious problem of addressing the pandemic,” he said. 

Medialdea even challenged the Senators saying, “I have a suggestion to those conducting the Senate hearings. Just file the necessary cases and leave it to the experts tasked to investigate them while you do your jobs to legislate or conduct the investigation properly in the aid of legislation.” 

Many Filipino netizens have theorised that the ongoing senate hearings are not at all in aid of legislation but are in aid of re-election given that the Senators conducting the hearings are the same politicians running for national positions in the 2022 elections.  

Conclusion

Nevertheless, despite the left and right political attacks and accusations against the incumbent government, Duterte has vowed not to be swayed. The president said the government would continue exhausting all efforts to defeat COVID-19. 

He told his political detractors, “If you think that these events surrounding the other reports on various agencies under the executive department will distract us from our mission to save our people, then you are wrong.” 

Duterte also told government officials: “We should perform our sworn duties to the people, including transparency and accountability.” He asserted that he will do his best to make the country “victorious” against COVID-19 and ready for a “bigger future.”

Source: The ASEAN Post
https://theaseanpost.com/article/philippines-senate-hearings-or-witch-hunt

Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy

Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy is Professor of Political Science, International Relations, Development Studies, European Studies, SEA and China Studies. She is a researcher-writer, academic and consultant on a wide array of issues. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other local and international NGOs as a consultant. She is President of Techperformance Corp, an IT-based company in the Philippines.