Philippine national budget

Ombudsman Martires changes tune, vows probe into pandemic funds

Lian Buan

OMBUDSMAN. File photo of Ombudsman Samuel Martires.


The comprehensive fact-finding will include PS-DBM and the Pharmally contracts, says the Ombudsman

In a change of tune, Ombudsman Samuel Martires said on Thursday, September 9, that there would be a comprehensive fact-finding inquiry into the government’s pandemic spending.

The probe will include the procurements and fund utilization by the Department of Health (DOH) and the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM).

“When the COA (Commission on Audit) report came out, August 12, in a memorandum to investigators dated August 12, I expanded the scope of the investigation to cover all – on the alleged overpricing of procurement, to the allegations of non use or unutulized equipment, and the allegations of expired medicines,” Martires said Thursday during the House appropriations committe hearing on his office’s proposed 2022 budget.

This is a different position that Martires is taking on the matter. In an August 12 press release, he said, “The Office of the Ombudsman will await the completion of the auditing process as the agency is given the opportunity to ensure full implementation of all audit recommendations.”

COA has flagged the DOH in its audit report, showing the mismanagement of P67 billion worth of pandemic funds.

Martires further said in that press release, “Should there be non-compliance or disagreement in the implementation of the recommendations and observations of the auditors, the matter may still be elevated to the COA en banc, which has the final say on the matter.”

‘No one is spared’

Since then, more investigations have unraveled questionable contracts awarded by the PS-DBM in 2020 and 2021 under its former head Lloyd Christopher Lao.

Senate Minority Franklin Drilon, one of the movers in the ongoing Senate blue ribbon committee hearings on pandemic spending, has particularly called PS-DBM’s award of so far P10 billion in contracts to a small foreign-led firm Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corporation as a “planned plunder.”

One of Drilon’s basis for saying so is because the DOH transferred P41 billion to PS-DBM for procurements, when COA said it lacked the required memorandum of agreement. Senators also questioned the prudence of passing on to PS-DBM a kind of procurement that the DOH already had an expertise for.

Asked by Bayan Muna Representative Ferdinand Gaite if the expanded fact-finding inquiry would cover Lao and Pharmally, Martires said, “Wala hong tao (no one) will be spared from the investigations.”

COA will also examine Pharmally contracts, Chairman Michael Aguinaldo told the House of Representatives during their own budget hearing last week.

A fact-finding inquiry is not yet a criminal proceeding. The fact-finding team will recommend either terminating the probe or file a complaint. The latter will trigger the criminal preliminary investigation by a separate bureau within the Office of the Ombudsman.

Martires opened a fact-finding inquiry into the DOH in June 2020, prompted by the first reports that there were delays in procuring personal protective equipment (PPEs) and releasing the hazard pay of health workers.

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Budget increase

Martires on Thursday appealed to lawmakers to restore the P710 million budget cut they suffered in the National Expenditure Program (NEP), or even to increase it further.

Their DBM-approved proposed budget for 2022 is P3.9 billion, which is P710 million lower than their current 2021 budget of P4.7 billion. The Office of the Ombudsman enjoys fiscal autonomy, and their charter guarantees that their budget cannot be reduced to an amount lower than previous years.

If they will have it their way, they actually want P4.8 billion, which Martires said would mainly go to hiring more investigators for their fact-finding and preliminary investigation bureaus.

If these bureaus expand, investigations will proceed more efficiently and quickly, the Ombudsman said. Martires added it would help put a stop to the so-called “parking” modus, which involves these bureaus supposedly getting paid to sit on investigations so the complaints would be dismissed for inordinate delay.

“I share their (lawmakers’) views, their fears that cases take too long, we share the same views. Our desire to fight corruption is one and the same. Don’t worry, whatever you will give us, we will accept it, we will still hire even if there is a budget cut,” said Martires in a mix of English and Filipino. –

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 or tweet @lianbuan.