Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Saturday, August 8, said that the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) was a "dense, formidable forest" as the Department of Justice (DOJ) started what would likely be an inter-agency probe into the scandal-ridden state health insurer.
"Philhealth looks like a dense and formidable forest. The task force will exert all efforts to ensure that they will not be lost in the maze and produce something in the end," Guevarra told reporters on Saturday.
Guevarra has been especially assigned by President Rodrigo Duterte "to organize a panel" that would audit and investigate Philhealth, which was being accused of either pocketing or misspending P15 billion worth of funds.
Duterte said in his August 7 memorandum that the "DOJ shall have the authority to require other agencies and instrumentalities of the government" to assist in the work.
The DOJ assignment has been questioned, because there are independent constitutional bodies that are precisely mandated to investigate corruption in government – the Office of the Ombudsman and the Commission on Audit (COA).
Guevarra said COA and the Ombudsman "will perform their core functions as part of the task force."
"The COA will audit, the Civil Service Commission will provide guidance on personnel actions, and the Ombudsman will investigate and prosecute anti-graft complaints that the task force may file," said Guevarra.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon discouraged Guevarra to tap the COA and the Ombudsman to be able to preserve their independence in the investigation.
“Pwede humingi ng kanilang assistance pero 'wag yung isali sa panel. Hindi sila pupwede mapasailalim sa Office of the President,” Drilon said over an interview on Radio DWIZ on Saturday.
(They can ask for assistance, but they shouldn’t include them in the panel. They can’t be held under the Office of the President.)
The Office of the Ombudsman has not responded to Rappler's question on the strategy they would follow in this investigation. The Office of the Ombudsman has fact-finding powers.
But Guevarra said he has talked to the "respective heads" of the constitutional bodies and "all of them accepted our invitation without any reservation or condition and promised their full support."
Asked if the Office of the Ombudsman could carry out a parallel fact-finding investigation external to the task force, Guevarra said "they can."
"But the very purpose of the task force is to pool resources together for a more focused approach," said Guevarra.
Duterte's memorandum also said "the panel may recommend to the President the imposition of preventive suspension on any Philhealth official."
The Office of the Ombudsman also has the power to impose preventive suspensions, and even dismissals ahead of the finding of probable cause for criminal charges.
"The recommendation to the president for preventive suspension pertains to government officials who are presidential appointees and are therefore subject directly to the disciplinary powers of the President," said Guevarra.
But Ombudsman Samuel Martires has disciplining authority over all elected and appointed officials, "except over officials who may be removed only by impeachment or over Members of Congress, and the Judiciary."
"That is true as a general rule, but presidential appointees may be more easily suspended or otherwise disciplined by the Office of the President," said Guevarra.
Asked if there was no legal impediment for Martires to impose preventive suspensions on his own, Guevarra said "yes."
Martires has earlier opened a fact-finding investigation into the Department of Health (DOH) for various issues.
Philhealth CEO Ricardo Morales is a retired army general who was appointed by Duterte to Philhealth in June 2019. Morales hails from Davao City.
A whistleblower told Senate hearings that there was “widespread corruption in PhilHealth" and that Morales allegedly ordered to “massage” the issue of supposedly overpriced COVID-19 test kits.