Duterte: 'I will stand for Duque even if it will bring me down'

President Rodrigo Duterte gave his biggest vote of confidence to embattled Health Secretary Francisco Duque III on Saturday, August 21, saying in a public address that he would not fire him even if this would ultimately drag him down.

"Maski mag-isa na lang ako (Even if I stand alone) I will stand for Duque, even if it will bring me down," Duterte said in a two-hour speech recorded late Friday night, August 20, and aired Saturday morning, August 21.

Duterte was referring to observations that his continued defense of Duque would pull down his public approval ratings. He said that he had "no use" for high approval ratings anyway since his presidency was nearing its end.

The President's speech was dedicated to addressing the controversial Commission on Audit (COA) report on the government's handling of pandemic funds. Duterte, however, softened his tone in addressing the COA report, saying he knew that state auditors were only doing their job.

The speech was recorded on the same day that the Philippines logged 17,231 new COVID-19 cases, the most in a single day since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Addressing renewed calls to fire Duque, Duterte said that it would be a "great injustice" to fire his health chief because it would inevitably result in the "lifetime" perception that Duque is corrupt.

After noting that Duque wasn't even part of his election campaign in 2016, Duterte said: "'Yung magnanakaw talaga na totoo, upakan ninyo, go ahead, go for his neck, they deserve it. Pero itong ganitong klase na wala talaga."

(Go ahead and attack those who are really corrupt, go for his neck, they deserve it. But here [in Duque's case], there's really nothing.)

He asked Duque's detractors: "Do you want me to fire Duque? Gusto mong paalisin ko? Give me a reason bakit ko paalisin (why I should fire him).... Ano ba ang nagawa niya na kasamaan (What evil did he commit)?"

Duterte said he would only sack an official for "corruption or dereliction of duty," adding that Duque did not commit any of these actions.

Contrary to his earlier stand, Duterte said that he was now okay with COA publicizing its reports, but that every report must begin and highlight a line that says "the report itself does not make any finding that funds were lost due to corruption."

The President was referring to a clarification made by COA that the resident auditor's findings – that the Department of Health (DOH) deficiently used P67 billion worth of pandemic funds – did not involve corruption.

Annual audit reports are procedural. COA can make fraud audits on special cases. Other agencies, especially the Office of the Ombudsman, can also make its own investigation using the annual audit report, even without a complaint.

Ombudsman Samuel Martires said in a statement on Friday, August 20, that he would still rather wait for DOH to comply with the recommendations of auditors. Records would show how agencies can ignore COA recommendations for years.

Former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales as well as former COA executives havd said that the Ombudsman can already conduct an investigation now. Senator Grace Poe also said that the Ombudsman could have already suspended Duque.

Duque, who blasted COA at a House hearing last week, was more cordial toward auditors during his remarks at the President's televised meeting with the coronavirus task force aired on Saturday. Duque said that the DOH and COA are coordinating to expand the definition of front liners who would qualify to get special risk allowance.

Duque's undersecretary, Leopoldo Vega, said: "We take [COA reports] seriously. The recommendations, we take it as a way to improve our services, because this will be better for our policy, reforms, and fund management."

Ecumenical Bishops Forum: Duque must resign now

The Ecumenical Bishops Forum (EBF), an organization of Catholic and Protestant bishops in the Philippines, called for Duque's immediate resignation in a letter to the editor sent to the media on Saturday.

"At the start of his presidency, one of Duterte’s avowed commitments is to rid the government of corruption. He even declared that he would fire officials even with just a whiff of corruption. Why is he now muzzling the agency that guards against corruption, and shielding those who committed irregularities in using public funds?” the EBF asked.

“What we see in all these is a colossal reek of deficiencies, mismanagement and even clear and present signs of corruption that warrant the resignation of Secretary Duque. In the best interest of the suffering Filipino people, he must resign immediately even if his ‘boss’ tells him not to. And if the President cannot or will not rid the government agencies of corrupt officials, he must resign too!" the bishops added. – 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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