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MANILA, Philippines – In August 2021, one of the biggest corruption scandals to rock the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte enraged not a few as the country was starting to emerge from the strict lockdowns imposed by the former president.
The Senate, led by then-blue ribbon committee chairman Richard “Dick” Gordon, started marathon hearings that month, and uncovered P10-billion worth of pandemic deals awarded between 2020 and 2021 to what appeared to be a favored though thinly-capitalized company: Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corporation (Pharmally).
Lacking funds, without much of a track record nor credibility to handle big-ticket contracts, Pharmally went through the Senate wringer that eventually resulted in a 113-page draft report first publicized in February 2022. Gordon’s committee recommended the filing of cases against Duterte at the end of his term for condoning the irregular deals and failing to go after his appointees and the businessmen behind the corruption uncovered in the Senate investigations.
In the end, Gordon was unable to elevate his committee report to plenary because it lacked the requisite number of signatures from senators. Only nine senators, including Gordon, signed the draft report – short of two for it to be discussed in plenary. Gordon said that senators refused to sign the report because it included the filing of charges against the former president.
The report recommended the filing of cases, including graft and plunder, against Duterte’s former economic adviser, Pharmally financier Michael Yang, former budget undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao, then-health secretary Francisco Duque III, and several other Pharmally executives and government officials.
In a resolution dated August 14, 2023, the Ombudsman recommended the filing of graft charges against officials and individuals linked to the Pharmally corruption scandal. Rappler revisits who some of them are and traces what has happened since the Senate investigations.
After his term ended in June 2022, Duterte has been enjoying private life in his hometown Davao City. He has appeared in some public events and meetings with government officials. He made headlines in July 2023 after meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping.
His daughter, Sara Duterte, was elected vice president of the country and has had her own share of controversies only a year into office. (READ: The 2 sides of Sara Duterte)
The patriarch had also said he would be ready to “face the music” and “rot in prison” after the International Criminal Court (ICC) rejected an appeal to postpone its probe into his bloody war on drugs. He has remained untouched insofar as the Pharmally mess is concerned.
Francisco Duque III
Since he stepped down as health secretary to give way to the new administration, Duque has not been seen publicly.
At a press conference two days before his term ended on June 28, 2022, Duque said the Department of Health (DOH), under his leadership, would be remembered for managing a “relatively successful” pandemic response. He said this, despite the country being at the bottom in terms of pandemic recovery, based on global assessments.
At a House hearing on pandemic issues, Duque got emotional as he hit the Commission on Audit for its findings about misused and unused P67-billion worth of funds intended for pandemic response. He claimed that this supposedly destroyed the reputation of the DOH. (WATCH: Emotional Duque confronts COA: ‘Winarak ’nyo kami’)
After his stint as health chief, Duque returned to the private sector to teach at their family-owned Lyceum-Northwestern University in Dagupan City. Last June, he attended the university’s graduation rites and handed out diplomas to graduates.
Yang acted as financier and guarantor for Pharmally. He rapidly expanded his businesses under Duterte. (READ: Duterte and Michael Yang’s friendship through the years)
Under the previous administration, Yang and his associates started several new companies, including a Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGO) firm and others involved in real estate, construction, and medical supplies.
At a Senate budget hearing for the agriculture department in October 2022, Senator Raffy Tulfo named Yang as allegedly being among agriculture smugglers in the country. Tulfo said that Yang was the “kingpin” of vegetable smuggling, with operations all over the country.
The Ombudsman’s special panel of investigators had recommended the filing of three counts of graft under section 3(e) of the Republic Act No. 3019, or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, against some officials, but absolved Duterte, Duque, and Yang. These officials are as follows:
Lloyd Christopher Lao
Lao was the former undersecretary of Procurement Service-Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM). Aside from the Pharmally scandal, he was also linked to the purchase of overpriced laptops for the Department of Education through the PS-DBM.
Lao resigned from PS-DBM in 2020 but he was required to pay a fine equivalent to a year’s salary.
In September 2022, the Senate denied Lao’s request to travel abroad. In September 2021, the Department of Justice issued an immigration lookout bulletin order for Lao and seven other individuals amid the then-ongoing Senate probe into the multi-billion pandemic deals.
Warren Rex Liong
Liong was involved in the multi-billion pandemic deals because he was the former group procurement director of PS-DBM at the time. He is currently the overall deputy ombudsman, a position he assumed during the latter part of 2020. He earlier said that he would voluntary inhibit in the case to avoid conflict of interest.
In March 2023, the Ombudsman ordered Liong’s preventive suspension for six months, along with others tagged in the Pharmally scandal.
Paul Jasper de Guzman
De Guzman was the procurement management officer of the PS-DBM when the pandemic deals were sealed. He was also placed under preventive suspension by the Ombudsman in March 2023.
Mohit Dargani served as Pharmally’s corporate secretary and treasurer. While Twinkle Dargani served as its president.
On January 11, 2022, Twinkle was released from Senate custody due to humanitarian reasons. She tested positive for COVID-19 and her mother cited her “deteriorating mental health condition.” She was detained at the Senate starting November 2021 after she was cited in contempt for their “refusal” to submit financial documents subpoenaed by senators during the Senate blue ribbon committee probe.
Meanwhile, Mohit was also released from Pasay City Jail in June 2022, when the Senate adjourned its session sine die. He spent almost seven six months in detention for refusing to cooperate in the Senate investigation.
During the course of the Senate investigation, Ong was cited in contempt for his inconsistent and evasive answers. He also declined an executive session with senators and refused to give their company’s financial records to the Senate.
Ong had been detained at the Pasay City Jail since November 2021 for his failure to cooperate in the Senate probe. He was released from detention only in June 2022, when the Senate session adjourned.
He served as Pharmally’s director.
Huang Tzu Yen
Huang Tzu Yen was the chairman and president of Pharmally. During the Senate hearing, Huang confirmed he is Singaporean, and is residing in Singapore. Pharmally’s incorporation records state in one page he is Singaporean, and in another, Filipino.
The Ombudsman also recommended the filing of three counts of graft against Justine Garado, one of the directors of Pharmally.
Meanwhile, the following PS-DBM employees (save for the private respondent), face one count of graft each: Christine Marie Suntay, director; Webster Laureñana, acting division chief of procurement division; August Ylagan, employee; Jasonmer Uayan, procurement management officer; and Krizle Grace Mago, private respondent. – Rappler.com