Drilon: PAO forensic lab a duplication, 'waste of money'

MANILA, Philippines – Senator Franklin Drilon said that the Public Attorney's Office (PAO) forensic laboratory is a waste of money, and a duplication of the forensic laboratories of the police and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).

"Ang pera ng bayan ay nalulustay sa isang bagay na puwede namang gampanan ng NBI at PNP (Philippine National Police)," Drilon said on Monday, September 23, during the Senate finance committee's hearing on the 2020 budget of the Department of Justice (DOJ).

(Taxpayers' money is being wasted on things that can be done by the NBI and the PNP.)

PAO is an agency attached to the DOJ.

"Your forensic laboratory is actually a duplication of what the NBI and PNP are doing, that's all, you may agree or disagree with that, but that's a view that I believe is a reasonable view," Drilon said at the tail end of a two-hour hearing that turned both tense and comical when it was PAO's turn.

NBI and PNP are mandated to have forensic laboratories.

"I am not sure that your mandate includes investigative work," Drilon told PAO chief Persida Acosta.

Comical

The legality of PAO's forensic lab, created in 2004 and headed by consultant Erwin Erfe, has been questioned both at the Office of the Ombudsman and the House of Representatives.

The PAO law did not authorize a forensic lab. But Acosta has consistently defended the unit as having been continuously approved by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

When Drilon started his interpellation, Acosta was quick to defend the lab even though the initial questions were not directed at it yet.

Acosta's impassioned responses repeatedly irked Drilon who, at once, yelled "wait!" so Acosta would stop. Finance committee chairman Senator Sonny Angara had to interject at times, saying, "The chair will interrupt if the answers are not responsive."

Drilon said that if one was to go by Acosta's theory that the DBM approval was enough basis to create and maintain an office, then Congress – as the branch that approves the budget – can create and abolish offices anytime it wants.

"If we delete that appropriation, that office will have to be abolished," Drilon pointed out, adding that it would set a dangerous precedent.

"We can insert provisions or make amendments or what we call congressional insertions and create an office which will now oblige the executive branch to fund that every year, because that office will continue to exist. In fact, if you ask the DBM, they will not allow congressional alignments to create an office because to do so will oblige the DBM to fund that every year and they're not prepared to do that," Drilon said.

No law

Drilon said that when the DBM once again approved the forensic lab's budget in January 2019, there was still no law because the 2019 budget suffered unprecedented delays and was only signed by President Rodrigo Duterte in April.

Drilon was trying to drive home the point of a lack of a law at the time to support the lab, but Acosta kept going back to provisions found in the General Appropriations Act (GAA) for that year.

Once again, Angara had to interject to explain that "it's a fact" that the 2019 GAA was delayed. "We can all take judicial notice, or legislative notice of that, it was in the news," Angara said.

Realizing the point, Acosta told Drilon she now understood.

"Lahat nakakaintindi, ikaw na lang hindi (everyone understands, except for you)," said Drilon, who was seen laughing at times with Angara and Senator Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa.

Even Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra could be seen smiling as his PAO chief was being interpellated.

'Don't blame me'

Drilon also raised the low immunization rate that the Department of Health (DOH) has connected to outbreaks of dengue and measles, and polio being back after the Philippines got rid of it 19 years ago.

"The DOH has said that there was a very perceptible and clear loss of confidence in the vaccine program of the DOH," Drilon began to say.

PAO, with Erfe leading the autopsies, has filed more than a hundred cases linking deaths do anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia even though there is no proven scientific link between Dengvaxia and the deaths.

Acosta said PAO should not be blamed for the return of polio, citing the timeline of the confirmed case of polio in a 3-year-old girl in Lanao del Sur.

"Sa polio na sinasabi sa Lanao, 3 years old...ang PAO nag-start lang po ng kaso ng February 2018, dapat po 'yung batang 'yan nabakunahan 'yan noong two months old pa siya, that is early 2016, wala pa pong pagkilos noon," Acosta said.

(In the case of the 3-year-old's polio, PAO started filing cases only in February 2018, and that kid should have been vaccinated when she was two months old, that is early 2016, we hadn't started our work yet then.)

Acosta added: "Napaka-unfair kada po may magkakasakit ako ang sinisisi nila, hindi naman ako ang nag-Senate blue ribbon, kayo 'yun eh," referring to the blue ribbon committee's investigation into the Dengvaxia controversy.

(It's so unfair that they blame me every time someone gets sick, I was not the one who conducted a Senate blue ribbon hearing, it was you.)

PAO's 2019 budget is P4.125 billion, the 2nd highest budget in the DOJ family next to DOJ proper at P7.9 billion. The Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) is 3rd with P4.099 billion.

In 2018, PAO had a P3.197-billion budget, which increased by 29.04%, or by P928.495 million, in 2019. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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