POSTSCRIPT / September 5, 2021 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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It isn’t just a whiff, but a toxic stench!

THERE is not just a whiff, which is President Duterte’s supposed trigger to take corrective action, but an overpowering stench filling the air with hints of big-time corruption that could trip him before he steps down at noon of June 30 next year.

From a weekly TV appearance, President Duterte now comes out to talk to the nation more frequently, looking agitated and sounding more threatening. The five-year-old regime that boasts of an approval rating past an incredible 90 percent seems to be in near panic.

This situation started to deteriorate with the routine Commission on Audit reports requiring explanations for what could have been mere negligence or sloppy documentation in the use of billions for the Department of Health’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But somebody who is not used to being asked to explain overreacted and imputed malice or obstructionism, if not political motives, to COA’s performing its constitutionally mandated job of overseeing the spending of taxpayers’ money.

President Duterte tried plugging what looked like a small leak in the dike that he has been building in the past five years, instructing Executive offices to ignore oversight flags of COA. But that did not work with COA officials who are not used to succumbing to political pressure.

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INQUIRING into the stink, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee chaired by Sen. Richard Gordon summoned DoH officials to testify before it on the disposition of its funds for COVID-19 pandemic response.

The committee focused initially on such allotments as the P66 billion flagged as deficient, the P42 billion transferred to the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM), and the P8.7 billion paid for Personal Protective Equipment.

Revelations on the background of PS-DBM chief Lloyd Christopher Lao and of Chinese suppliers and their agents, raised concerns that while the people suffered, well-connected characters were using the pandemic to grab millions for themselves and presumably their patrons in high places.

We may be witnessing what looks like the unraveling of a regime running out of time and resources in the middle of a raging pandemic and a shrinking economy. Its capacity to deliver before May 2022 on its promise of a better life is getting dimmer by the day.

We’re not surprised that more and more prominent politicians, big businessmen and community leaders who had been quietly watching on the sidelines are now speaking up critically. The media are bristling with sights and sounds of a possible sea change.

If Duterte claims that just a whiff of wrongdoing is enough to make him act, the people now impatient with corruption and incompetence need only a whit of misconduct to dump the crooks, liars, and pretenders who have wormed themselves into positions of power.

Will the Duterte regime be able to regain its composure during the eight stormy months before the May 9 national elections next year? Maybe a prior question would be: Will the potentially disastrous elections proceed as scheduled?

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INSTEAD of auditing the Philippine Red Cross as President Duterte wants, the Commission on Audit plans to dig deeper into the background of Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. that sold to the PS-DBM reportedly overpriced and low-quality PPEs.

COA Chair Michael Aguinaldo told a budget hearing Friday in the House of Representatives that its resident auditor with the PS-DBM was already reviewing Pharmally’s contracts for face masks and face shields.

Pharmally was set up in 2019 with a paid-up capitalization of only P650,000 yet won over P8.7 billion in 11 supply contracts. President Duterte’s former economic adviser, Michael Yang, has been linked to the firm.

Lao of the PS-DBM himself is, by Duterte’s admission, also that close to the President. He reportedly worked with the then Davao City mayor and helped in his 2016 presidential campaign.

In so many words, however, Duterte asks: So what’s wrong with paying a debt of gratitude or doing a favor for a fraternal (sic) brod?

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BUT when relationships are about other people, like for example senator Gordon, Duterte goes by a different set of rules.

The senator wondered aloud the other day why Duterte was making advance claims that Gordon, who is the Philippine Red Cross chair, was going to use PRC funds for his election campaign – when he (Gordon) has not even decided if he would run for any office next year.

Duterte had slammed Gordon for conflict of interest as PRC chair. The same line was used by Sen. Bong Go, Duterte’s former aide, who said that Gordon should not preside over the Senate hearing since the PRC has dealings with the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (Philhealth).

The President said (mistakenly) that the PRC is a government agency (it is not) and that it was suspicious that Gordon is both a senator and Red Cross chair.

Under its charter, the PRC is a “national voluntary organization… financed primarily by contributions obtained through personal solicitation campaigns.” It is audited not by COA but by an external international auditing outfit.

The PRC board of governors has expressed “staunch and unequivocal” support for their chair, who they said is an “unsalaried volunteer like the rest of the board, who has transformed the PRC into the responsive and modernized institution that it is today.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 5, 2021)

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