Key witness in probe of PhilHealth scandal backs out, says he’s ‘being followed’

JC Gotinga

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Key witness in probe of PhilHealth scandal backs out, says he’s ‘being followed’

Hybrid session: Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III, along with key Senate officers, continues to preside plenary session late Monday, August 3, 2020, with colleagues in attendance virtually remaining until the end of proceedings. (Joseph Vidal/Senate PRIB)

Etrobal Laborte, who recently resigned as executive assistant to the PhilHealth chief, withdraws from testifying in a Senate probe of corruption in the state health insurer

Etrobal Laborte, a key witness in the Senate’s investigation into alleged rampant corruption in the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth), has backed out of the probe, Senator Panfilo Lacson told reporters on Wednesday, August 5.

Laborte was supposed to virtually attend a Senate hearing on Tuesday, August 4, and was present when he and other witnesses were administered the oath to testify truthfully. When it was his turn to speak, however, he had disappeared from the web conference.

“Disappointing nga na bigla siyang nag-log out. Naka-log in siya noong una eh…pero noong hinahanap namin, wala na,” Lacson said.

(It was rather disappointing that he suddenly logged out. He was logged in at first…but when we looked for him, he was gone.)

After the 10-hour hearing, Laborte sent word to Lacson, begging off from the probe.

It was not the first time Laborte got cold feet, Lacson said. Around 3 weeks earlier, Laborte reached out to the senator’s office, offering valuable information about corruption in PhilHealth. At the time, Laborte was head executive assistant to PhilHealth chief Ricardo Morales.

Lacson then set a meeting with Laborte, but, right before their appointment, Laborte called Lacson to back out.

“Sinabi niya lang na mayroon siyang nararamdaman na sumusunod sa kanya and then, anyway, nag-resign na rin siya [sa PhilHealth]. Parang he wanted to leave it at that,” Lacson recalled.

(He just said that he felt someone was following him and then, anyway, he already resigned [from PhilHealth]. It seemed he wanted to leave it at that.)

Laborte changed his mind afterwards and supplied Lacson with documents to support his allegations against PhilHealth’s leadership. Until right before the Senate hearing, Laborte was enthusiastic and seemed willing to tell everything he knew, Lacson said.

As with the first time Laborte hesitated, something must have intervened to make him think twice. Lacson thinks something similar might have happened during Tuesday’s probe.

“You know, the power of text messages eh, ’di rin natin alam. Baka may nakapag-text sa kanya na, ‘Baka naman puwede mag-log out ka na.’ Puwede ’yon,” Lacson told reporters on Wednesday.

(You know, the power of text messages, we never know. Perhaps someone texted him, “Maybe you ought to log out.” That’s possible.)

“Of course, I am speculating,” Lacson added.

Key witness

It was Laborte who drew Lacson’s attention to PhilHealth’s bloated procurement plan for 15 computer system network switches, which the senator presented at Tuesday’s hearing.

The Commission on Audit (COA) earlier flagged the proposal because PhilHealth already had 24 brand new network switches, unused and still in their boxes. Laborte researched further and discovered that the market price for the items was only around P62,000 apiece, but the PhilHealth proposal priced them at P320,000 each.

This led senators, including Lacson, to question PhilHealth president and CEO Ricardo Morales for not having flagged the proposal. Although the plan was drafted before his appointment to PhilHealth, it was supposed to be implemented in his watch.

Lacson grilled Morales over the matter. Why didn’t he sound the alarm after his own executive assistant, Laborte, pointed out the anomaly?

Laborte has a lot more information and documents to offer, and his withdrawal from the Senate probe is a significant loss, Lacson said.

Although the Senate has the authority to compel Laborte to testify, Lacson said he would rather maintain goodwill with the key witness. He did volunteer at first and was “excited” to tell what he knew, and he was courteous even when he was trying to excuse himself.

“I will try to talk to him,” Lacson said. Another hearing is set for Tuesday, August 11, and the senator will give Laborte a chance to testify then.

“We can always provide security for [Laborte],” Senate President Vicente Sotto III said on Wednesday.

On whether the Senate should issue Laborte a subpoena, Sotto said he would speak with Lacson, who is more familiar with the witness’ situation.


A former Marine colonel, Laborte began working with Morales during Morales’ previous stint at the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System.

Morales, a former Army general, and Laborte are both alumni of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA). Laborte helped his PMA 2001 batchmate Thorrsson Montes Keith get the job of anti-fraud legal counsel at PhilHealth.

Keith has also resigned from PhilHealth, citing “widespread corruption” in the agency. Keith and Laborte’s resignations will take effect by the end of August.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Keith accused PhilHealth’s top executives of stealing or mishandling P15 billion of the government-owned corporation’s funds.

As for Laborte, Lacson said the former soldier was worried his PMA upperclassmen would accuse him of being a “squealer.”

A PMA alumnus himself, Lacson said it was the wrong way to interpret the PMA Honor Code, which includes loyalty to the institution. There is a “dividing line” between squealing on one’s comrades and helping out in an investigation to benefit the country.

“Sabi ko naman sa kanya, kung tama ’yung ’pinaglalaban mo, hindi ‘squealer’ ang tawag diyan. Advocacy ’yan, na gusto mong itama ang mali. Tumutulong ka,” Lacson said.

(I told him, if you’re fighting for what’s right, then that’s not being a “squealer.” That’s advocacy, that you want to set right what is wrong. You’re helping out.) –

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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.