Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he would go after lawmakers who continue to question government transactions, including those involving his longtime friend Michael Yang who had financially assisted an undercapitalised trading company that won billions of pesos worth of government contracts for pandemic supplies.
“This is how our game will go. You find fault in us, and we will find what’s wrong with you,” he warned senators in a public address recorded on September 10 and aired on national television the next day.
The president said he would “begin first” with Senator Richard Gordon, chair of the Senate blue-ribbon committee which opened an inquiry into the transfer of 42 billion pesos ($840 million) in funds from the Department of Health to the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM) to purchase pandemic supplies, such as face masks, Covid-19 testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPE).
“I’m sure that I will find plenty, plenty of – whatever, but it will be plenty, when we start with you Senator Gordon,” Duterte said.
He also threatened to terminate government transactions with the Philippine Red Cross, which is chaired by Gordon, and said he would ask the Commission on Audit (CoA) to look into the finances of the private humanitarian group.
He said Gordon was “using” a dismissed police officer Eduardo Acierto, who was linked to the importation of firearms that allegedly fell into rebel hands.
The president said Acierto had gone after and intimidated Chinese businessmen, including Yang, who was implicated in the illegal drug trade by the former officer.
Without elaborating, he asked Gordon whether he knew a certain Glen Tan from the Municipality of Subic and asked about Gwendolyn Pang, a former Red Cross official.
In a statement on September 11, the Red Cross called on Duterte to think about the Filipinos who may be deprived of its services should the government terminate all its dealings with the organisation.
Lawyer Lorna Kapunan, who is a member of the Red Cross board of governors, was dismayed that the president threatened to cut ties with the organisation only because of his disdain for Gordon.
“The Philippine Red Cross is not [Gordon]. It is a humanitarian organisation with the president himself as the honorary governor, and with a 30-member board of governors, six of which are presidential appointees,” she said.
Kapunan also said the CoA could not audit “an independent, autonomous and impartial humanitarian organisation”.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon who is actively participating in the Senate probe, is also in Duterte’s crosshairs.
Drilon was the first to reveal that the trading company Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp, which has a paid-up capital of only 625,000 pesos, bagged 8.7 billion pesos worth of contacts from the PS-DBM. These contracts are at the centre of the Senate inquiry.
Duterte did not mention Senator Panfilo Lacson, another critic of the transactions, who said during a hearing on September 10 that Yang had lied under oath about his involvement with Pharmally and the company’s transactions.
Loan from Yang
Yang told the senators that he just introduced one of its company directors to his Chinese “friends”.
He also admitted introducing officers of Pharmally’s Taiwan-based mother company, Pharmally International Holding Co Ltd to the president in 2017 as was earlier reported.
But Pharmally Pharmaceutical chair and president Huang Tzu Yen and company director Linconn Ong told senators that Yang loaned money to their company when it struggled to pay the Chinese suppliers.
Ong said Yang also “guaranteed” the contracts with the Chinese suppliers and “paid for the stocks”.
Duterte defended his friend and Pharmally, saying that the company fulfilled their contracts, complete in quantity and quality according to specifications, and got paid only after they delivered the goods.
“Michael Yang, who I knew for the last 20 years as a businessman in Davao, he was the one I gave orders to initially when I made contact with the Chinese,” he said. “Since he has a business, he wanted to get involved. He’s a businessman, what can you do?” He said the senators were calling investigations to gain more public exposure.
“If you keep on calling people to testify there, how can they work?” he said. “They think if they come up with certain corruption cases, true or false, they could get the mileage.”
According to Gordon, the president had implicated himself in wrongdoing with his statements.
“[The president] is involved. I don’t have to say it because he said it himself,” Gordon said, referring to Duterte’s “order” to his friend Yang to make deals with Chinese companies.
“Mr President, you should follow bidding rules because if you go beyond the bidding rules, you will be implicated,” Gordon said. “It was established that he [Yang] was the one funding the transactions; a guarantor; the president referred to him as a payor.”
Gordon said the lawmakers were “drawing heat” from Duterte while the president’s men “amassed” billions of pesos without the public knowing it.
Gordon said senators saw that “money was flowing into Pharmally”, which he described as a “mere agent”, but that “all the money is going one way to Yang and whoever is behind him”.
He said the blue-ribbon investigation may come to a conclusion that either malfeasance or misfeasance was committed by public officials and their cohorts.
“We will write what we will see, including the President’s reaction that it’s as if he’s running amuck and getting confused,” he said.
In his remarks against Drilon, Duterte linked the senator to Janet Lim-Napoles, the alleged mastermind of the pork barrel scam, and to former Iloilo City Mayor Jed Mabilog and retired Police Deputy Director General Marcelo Garbo Jr, whom he both accused of involvement in illegal drugs.
Duterte asked Drilon: Who owned the biggest mall in Iloilo City and who brokered the sale of the old Iloilo City airport to Megaworld?
Drilon dismissed the president’s statements as “distractions and disinformation”.
“If all these malicious attacks are the price we have to pay for exposing the truth, then so be it. We will face them,” he said in a statement.
Drilon played down his alleged links to Napoles and said the government’s privatisation council could explain the controversy involving the Iloilo airport.
“Who brokered the sale of the old Iloilo airport? It was sold through a public bidding at 1.2 billion pesos set by the privatisation council then headed by the late justice secretary Raul Gonzales in 2007,” he said.
According to Drilon, Mabilog is his distant relative now reportedly in hiding following the Duterte’s charges that the former mayor was involved in drugs, along with Garbo.
“But what I can say is, there is not an iota of evidence that will link my name to illegal drugs,” Drilon said.
PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK