MANILA, Philippines — Lawmakers including those from the administration slammed yesterday the findings of a special task force that investigated alleged anomalies in the Philippine Health Insurance Corp., particularly the non-inclusion of Health Secretary and PhilHealth chairman Francisco Duque III in the list of those recommended for criminal charges.
Reacting to criticisms, task force head Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra emphasized that the task force report contained only preliminary findings.
“Our report is about our initial findings only. Further investigations will be conducted and more people may be charged,” Guevarra said.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the task force’s failure to recommend charges against Duque and PhilHealth senior vice president for legal sector Rodolfo del Rosario Jr. has left him stunned and “dumbfounded.”
“No Duque? No Del Rosario? I’m dumbfounded! Article 217 (malversation) of the (Revised Penal Code) is very clear,” Sotto told reporters in a Viber message late Monday.
“It’s good that the Office of the Ombudsman does not rely on investigations of task forces. They have motu propio powers,” Sotto said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto also expressed disappointment even as he pointed out that senators had previously adopted a resolution calling for Duque’s resignation.
“If the board did its job then there should be no problem,” Recto told CNN Philippines. Duque heads the PhilHealth board.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said he has yet to read in full the report of the task force headed by Guevarra but expressed regret that the recommendations of the Senate apparently went unheeded.
“Let me just say at the outset that obviously, the materials that we provided and shared with Secretary Guevarra and the composite task force were put into good use at the very least. This is good reason enough to feel gratified that we did our share in taking the first big step in making those criminally and administratively liable for the misuse and abuse of public monies accountable,” Lacson said.
Sen. Bong Go for his part commended the task for its “thorough investigation” even as he stressed the probe should not stop with the release of the report.
“This is just part of our ongoing campaign to remove the deep-rooted, systemic corruption plaguing our bureaucracy. I expect the task force to continue its investigation on any and all anomalies in PhilHealth as well as other agencies of the government,” Go said.
Some members of the lower House also expressed dismay at the findings. “We are not fooled by Secretary Duque’s demeanor and outward personality. He has been in and out and in again of PhilHealth over the years. Secretary Duque is shrewd, but he cannot keep fooling the Filipino people,” said ACT-CIS party-list Rep. Jocelyn Tulfo in statement.
Not yet off the hook
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque emphasized Duque is not yet off the hook despite his not being included in the task force’s report.
“This is just the beginning, given the very limited period of time given to the task force to come up with recommendations,” he said at a press briefing. Shortly after the release of the report Monday night, Roque said Duque will only receive “admonition” for the PhilHealth mess.
In a statement, PhilHealth executive vice president and chief operating officer Arnel de Jesus said they “will fully submit to the good judgment of and to whatever instructions that the President will issue based on the findings and recommendations therein.”
“As always it is reiterating its unwavering commitment to truth and justice. May the said report, which is also based on the recent congressional hearings, guide the proper authorities in pursuing those who had been culpable of wrongdoing and exonerate those that are innocent,” he said.
But PhilHealth, he said, is still awaiting an official copy of the task force’s report.
“The whole of PhilHealth will continue to cooperate with the subsequent investigations to be conducted by the Task Force’s composite teams as well as by the other authorized agencies for the sake of truth and transparency,” he added.
Meanwhile, Tulfo and deputy majority leader and Bagong Henerasyon party-list Rep. Bernadette Herrera said the executive branch should also move for the issuance of hold departure orders against resigned PhilHealth president and CEO Ricardo Morales and other former officials of the state insurance firm to prevent them from evading prosecution.
“The processes leading to immigration watchlists and hold departure orders and Interpol Red Notices should be set in motion so that when the time comes for those formalities to be done, actions will be swift,” Herrera said in a statement.
She added the task force should “secure the files and computers of PhilHealth to make sure evidence and witnesses do not suddenly vanish without any trace and so conveniently for the plunderers.”
“As Congress conducts its hearings, alleged corrupt elements within the PhilHealth could be deleting files, covering up their electronic trail, destroying evidence and attending to contingencies, including fleeing to other countries with which the Philippines has no extradition treaties. The DOJ must take the necessary step,” she pointed out.
Tulfo said Duque should be “held accountable and liable” while Morales should be placed under hospital arrest.
“Frankly, I have no pity for him. Perhaps his situation now is what he deserves. If he succumbs before he could be held criminally liable for what has happened to PhilHealth, then he is getting the merciful way out,” she said, referring to Morales.
The House joint committee on public accounts and on good government and public accountability, which investigated the PhilHealth anomalies, is set to complete today its report and recommendations on the matter.
The report, to be contained in a resolution, will be submitted to the House plenary for approval.
At a press conference, Roque said the release of the report would not stop the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) from digging deeper into alleged PhilHealth irregularities.
“This is only the beginning. The report stated that the investigation of the NBI and the DOJ would continue. The ombudsman will also continue its investigation,” he said.
Roque noted that the task force, composed of Civil Service Commission, Office of the Executive Secretary, Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission and Palace Undersecretary Melchor Quitain, was only given 30 days to come up with a report.
The Office of the Ombudsman has clarified that while it cooperated with the probe, it is not part of the task force, it being an independent body.
“The task force said that there was negligence on the part of the members of the board, including the chairman and the members of the board. So it’s not just Secretary Duque, there’s also the ex-officio members of the board, which includes at least five sitting secretaries,” Roque said.
In his televised address Monday night, President Duterte said PhilHealth officials named in the task force report should face the full force of the law.
“I am sorry for them but they would have to undergo trial. Although they can always prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt…The presumption of innocence still attaches but the report of another agency says otherwise,” Duterte said.
“The recommendation as read by the President is strong admonishment against the chairman of PhilHealth and members of the board of directors, that the money of the people should be safeguarded,” Roque said.
“We have to be good stewards of public funds… The report said the chairman and members of the board, including five Cabinet members, need to intensify their safeguarding of public funds so they won’t be lost,” he added.
Roque also stressed that Duterte’s expressing his high regard for Duque did not influence the findings of the task force.
Cases with ombudsman
Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete said they intend to file criminal charges against seven recently resigned and incumbent officials of PhilHealth before the Office of the Ombudsman “as soon as the complaints and the collation on supporting documents are finalized.”
Recommended for preliminary investigation for various corruption-related offenses, aside from Morales, are executive vice president and chief operating officer Arnel de Jesus; SVP Jovita Aragona, chief information officer and head of the Information Management Sector; SVP Renato Limsiaco Jr., SVP Israel Francis Pargas of the Health Financial Policy Sector, officer-in-charge Calixto Gabuya Jr. and division chief Bobby Crisostomo.
Not named in the task force report but might be included in the continuing investigation by its composite team on legal sector is former SVP for Legal Sector Rodolfo del Rosario Jr.
Guevarra also clarified that they could recommend the filing of criminal complaints before the Office of the Ombudsman since the latter was never a formal member of the Task Force.
“We do not consider them as formal members of the task force precisely because they are not under the Executive Department. They were something like ‘guest participants’ in the fact-finding aspect, but they had no hand in the evaluation and recommendations made by the DOJ,” the Justice Secretary added, referring to COA and CSC.
In its 177-page report submitted to President Duterte, the TF PhilHealth also recommended to the President to “strongly admonish and remind the chairman and members of the Board of the grave consequences of their action or inaction.” Duque is the chairman the PhilHealth Board. – Sheila Crisostomo, Edu Punay, Alexis Romero