Budget Watch

PAO continued to do ‘illegal’ autopsies despite defunding of forensic lab – Garin

Lian Buan
PAO continued to do ‘illegal’ autopsies despite defunding of forensic lab – Garin

The House of Representatives resumes its hearing on the controversial government immunization program on February 26, 2018. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

File photo by Leanne Jazul/Rappler

'They've already been told not to waste money on this, so why do they continue to do it?' Garin asks in Filipino

If President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the defunding of the forensic lab of the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) for 2020, then how come it continued to conduct autopsies for alleged Dengvaxia deaths?

That was the question on Tuesday, October 6, of Iloilo Representative Janette Garin during the House plenary deliberations on the 2021 budget of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and its attached agencies, including PAO.

Garin presented materials to the lower chamber that, she said, would show that PAO continued to conduct autopsies during the coronavirus pandemic.

This is a video that is being propagated by PAO, walang social distancing, patuloy na nag-o-autopsy sa kasagsagan ng pandemya where many people are needing help,” said Garin.

(This is a video being propagated by PAO, there is no social distancing, and they continued to do autopsies at the height of the pandemic when many people are needing help.)

Patuloy na nag-a-advertise si Erwin Erfe, isang pekeng forensic expert (Erwin Erfe continued to advertise himself, a fake forensic expert),” Garin added, referring to PAO’s longtime forensic consultant whose credentials have also been repeatedly disputed by scientists.

Defunded

In his budget vetoes for 2020, Duterte said, “No amount appropriated in this act shall be used for travel allowance, meetings, and other maintenance and operating expenses of the PAO Forensic Laboratory.”

That essentially defunded the forensic lab, which was created only in 2004. With Erfe leading the lab, PAO had done autopsies on individuals to boost its case that the dengue vaccine Dengvaxia killed or at least contributed to the deaths of the patients.

To date, there is no established scientific link between Dengvaxia and these deaths. PAO’s forensic work has also been continuously questioned by scientists and experts.

Duterte’s defunding of the forensic lab followed close scrutiny in Congress of the 2020 budget. Congress pointed out that the PAO charter did not create the lab as only Congress can create an office through laws.

“I am pointing to a fact that abuses are being committed using taxpayers’ money. Sinabihan na nga na huwag magsayang ng pera, bakit po ba patuloy na ginagawa ito ng PAO?” asked Garin.

(They’ve already been told not to waste money on this, so why do they continue to do it?)

The budget department has approved a P4.6-billion budget for PAO, the 2nd highest budget in the DOJ family next to the DOJ proper which has a proposed P7.2-billion budget for 2021. 

‘Pag-aaralan muli’

There were no explanations from PAO during the hearing on Tuesday, except to dispute Garin’s claim that the lab had been found to be illegal.

“Wala pong natagpuang iligal na forensic laboratory, tama po na nailipat ‘yung pondo, pero ‘yung forensic laboratory hindi po natagpuang iligal,” said the DOJ’s budget sponsor, Bulacan 1st District Representative Jonathan Sy-Alvarado.

(There was no finding that the forensic laboratory was illegal, it’s true that the money was transferred somewhere else, but the forensic laboratory was not found to be illegal.)

Only the budget sponsor can answer an interpellator’s question during a plenary debate. Sponsors can consult agency officials who are in the session hall.

Alvarado pointed out that in his affirmation message for the 2020 budget, Duterte said: “The limitation does not, in any way, prohibit the PAO from performing its legitimate functions under existing laws.”

“Parte po ng pagtulong sa kababayan ay magkaroon ng abot kaya na forensic laboratory na magagamit ng ating mga kababayan sakali po na wala silang kakayahan na gumastos para sa kanilang sariling forensic,” said Alvarado.

(Part of helping Filipinos is to offer an affordable forensic laboratory which our countrymen can use if they do not have the means to spend for their own forensic needs.)

Garin pointed out that the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) have their own forensic laboratories that could do autopsies for poor Filipinos.

“Don’t they trust the PNP crime lab at paulit-ulit po na sinasabi na palaging opposite ang findings ng iligal na PAO forensic lab dahil ang kanilang eksperto ay hindi tunay na eksperto,” said Garin.

(Don’t they trust the PNP crime lab? We always say that their findings are opposite the findings of this illegal PAO forensic lab because its expert is not a real expert.)

In the past, PAO chief Persida Acosta had used for her defense a department order by former justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre assigning PAO to help the so-called Dengvaxia victims.

“It was authorized to represent possible victims of Dengavaxia-related injuries or deaths, but it does not in any way dictate the agency to present Acosta as a doctor because she is not,” said Garin, who is herself a physician.

Garin went on to point the flaws in some of Erfe’s forensic findings, saying that all scientists and doctors would know that what PAO has been saying are wrong.

Garin pressed once more: if the forensic lab has been defunded, why does it continue to do autopsies?

Alvarado said PAO and the DOJ commit to study the issue further, but it was unclear whether he was referring to the authority to conduct autopsies, or the autopsy findings themselves.

“Hindi lang po para sa ating kasama, kung hindi para sa ating kababayan, lalo na sa magulang ng mga batang nasaksakan ng Dengvaxia, sabi naman po ng PAO at DOJ ay muli at mas maigting na pag-aaralan,” said Alvarado.

(Not only for our colleague, but also for our countrymen, especially the parents of the children who were vaccinated with Dengvaxia, PAO and the DOJ said they would study this carefully again.)

In March 2019, DOJ prosecutors charged Garin with reckless imprudence resulting in homicide as a result of PAO’s Dengvaxia-related complaints.

Garin was the health secretary when the Aquino administration bought and implemented its anti-dengue program using Dengvaxia. This issue had been used by supporters of the Duterte administration against the political opposition. – 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.