Sotto to Duque, PhilHealth execs: Get a good lawyer

JC Gotinga
Sotto to Duque, PhilHealth execs: Get a good lawyer

From the Office of Senator Vicente Sotto III

By claiming ignorance of anomalies in the state insurer, health chief Francisco Duque III only digs himself deeper into trouble, says Senate President Vicente Sotto III

Senate President Vicente Sotto III insisted that Health Secretary Francisco Duque III should be sued for malversation regardless of whether there is evidence of direct involvement in billion-peso anomalies hounding the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation.

The fact that such massive instances of alleged corruption happened under Duque’s watch as ex-officio chairman of PhilHealth makes him accountable for malversation of public funds under Article 217 of the Revised Penal Code, Sotto said.

The provision states that a public officer who, “through abandonment or negligence,” permits any other person to take public funds or property is guilty of the same offense.

Duque’s claim of ignorance of the anomalies in PhilHealth only incriminates him further, Sotto added.

“I think Secretary Duque should get a good lawyer because he is practically admitting guilt to [Article] 217 ‘pag sinasabi niyang hindi niya alam (when he says he did not know),” Sotto told reporters in a virtual briefing on Wednesday, September 2.

Besides, the senator said it was implausible that Duque was unaware that P14.8 billion pesos in PhilHealth funds was released illegally under the Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM) from March to June.

“You’re the chairman of the board – and you didn’t know? The chairman of the board leads the direction and the agenda of the board. So you cannot say that you didn’t know about it,” Sotto said, in a mix of English and Filipino.

Interpellation at the Senate plenary

During the Senate’s plenary session on Wednesday afternoon, Sotto defended the inclusion of Duque among officials against whom a Senate probe report recommended criminal complaints, involving alleged corruption in PhilHealth.

A few senators had expressed reservations about the Senate committee of the whole’s indictment of Duque. As head of the panel that included all members of the Senate, Sotto led the drafting of the report based on 3 marathon investigative hearings in August.

Only two senators have not signed the committee report: Senator Leila de Lima, who is in detention, and Senator Koko Pimentel.

Pimentel wanted to clarify how the committee arrived at its conclusion about Duque, so he signed up for the interpellation, Sotto said.

“How can he be held accountable for all or any or some of the discovered anomalies when he claims that he is a non-voting chairman of the board?” Pimentel asked, referring to Duque.

During the Senate hearing on August 18, Duque washed his hands of the irregularities in PhilHealth, saying he never signed any of the documents that authorized the questionable fund releases.

Hindi ka nga voting [member] eh, kaya talagang hindi ka pipirma roon (You’re really not a voting member, so you really wouldn’t have signed anything). It’s obvious,” Sotto answered Pimentel, referring to Duque.

“It does not exonerate him from any liability as stated in the very charter of the PhilHealth. The board governs,” Sotto added.

Sotto reiterated the culpability of PhilHealth’s top officials under Article 217 of the Revised Penal Code – that mere abandonment or negligence makes them as guilty as those who actively embezzled public funds.

“If I were one of the persons mentioned by the committee report, I will get a good lawyer,” Sotto said.

Besides Duque, the Senate committee of the whole recommended criminal complaints against former PhilHealth president and CEO Ricardo Morales, executive vice president and COO Arnel de Jesus, senior vice presidents Rodolfo del Rosario Jr, Renato Limsiaco Fr, Israel Francis Pargas and Jovita Aragona, and acting senior IT manager Calixto Gabuya Jr.

Enough evidence on Duque?

Senators Panfilo Lacson and Richard Gordon also had “reservations” about recommending criminal complaints against Duque. Both said there may not have been enough evidence gathered from the Senate probe to criminally indict the health chief. Nevertheless, they also both said they would support the committee of the whole’s report.

Lacson said he would interpellate Sotto to clairfy the matter but he did not do so, as Pimentel asked the same question on Duque’s culpability.

Lacson instead pointed out that there had been 632 disbursements under the IRM before it took legal effect on June 11. Of those 632 disbursements, 339 were worth P8.8 million or more. That meant the Senate probe established at least 339 counts of malversation of public funds carrying the punishment of reclusion perpetua, Lacson concluded.

Sotto had aimed to take in all amendments to the report on Wednesday and have it officially adopted by the body at the end of the day’s session. However, several senators proposed additional recommendations that had to be written into the document, so finalizing the committee report was moved to Monday, September 7.

Sotto wanted to fast-track the process so that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Ombudsman could take the Senate’s recommendations into account in their separate investigations on PhilHealth.

By naming Duque, Morales, and the other PhilHealth officials in the Senate probe report, “we are telling the DOJ to investigate them,” Sotto said.

“They will have their day in court. They have that chance to prove that they have nothing to do with it,” Sotto added. –

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.