Philippine President Supports Health Commissioner over COVID Audit

Marielle Lucenio and Jojo Riñoza
Philippine President Supports Health Commissioner over COVID Audit Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) prepares for his second COVID-19 vaccination administered by Health Secretary Francisco Duque III at the Malacañang Palace in Manila, July 12, 2021.
King Rodriguez/ Malacañang Presidential Photographers Division via AP

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said the health commissioner had done nothing wrong and he would not accept his resignation amid a controversy resulting from an auditor’s report, which pointed to discrepancies in money allocated to the health department for COVID-19.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III has faced mounting calls to be fired after the Commission on Audit (COA) reported last week that it had discovered “various deficiencies” to do with 67.32 billion Philippine pesos (U.S. $1.33 billion) intended for combating the pandemic. 

“I know you want to resign, but you also know that I will refuse,” Duterte told Duque during a televised cabinet meeting on Monday night. “Why would you quit? I’m telling you now, don’t. You have not done anything wrong.”

The health department may have failed to present supporting documents tied to the audit, the president said, adding “it’s impossible that they stole 67.3 billion pesos.”

Duterte said that many government workers had been placed in a bad light because of the audit commission, an independent constitutional body tasked with safeguarding public funds.

In the audit released last week, the commission said that the deficiencies had to do with public funds “intended for national efforts of combatting the unprecedented scale of the COVID-19 crisis.”

“These deficiencies contributed to the challenges encountered and missed opportunities by the DOH during the state of calamity/national emergency, and casted doubts on the regularity of related transactions.”

On Monday, the COA issued a statement on its website clarifying its findings.

“Accompanying the observations and findings are the recommendations made by the auditors for the management of DOH to address the observation and findings. These are part of the audit process, which allows the audited agency to comply with the recommendations and rectify any deficiencies,” the statement said.

“The report itself does not mention any findings by the auditors of funds lost to corruption.”

It noted that findings showed “deficiencies involving COVID-19 funds” amounting to 67.3 billion pesos, noting 42.4 billion pesos ($840 million) consisted of fund transfers to “procurement/implementing partner-agencies without the required documentation.”

“There is no finding that this amount cannot be accounted for,” the statement said.

“[T]he audit process for the deficiencies pointed out has not been completed. Hence, it is premature at this stage to make conclusions on the findings in the Consolidated Annual Audit Report.”

On Tuesday, a spokesman could not immediately be reached to give more of an explanation about the so-called deficiencies.

The health department issued its own news release on Monday saying, “findings on fund utilization, recording of donations, grant of meal benefits, and compensation for HCWs [were] already resolved,” using an abbreviation for health care workers.

The release said health department staff was working with the audit commission “to continuously improve its processes to better serve Filipinos.

“Moreover, the department, together with its operating units, is actively addressing the remaining COA findings in order to ensure that taxes of the Filipino people and funds provided to the Department of Health are utilized efficiently.”

Duterte challenges auditors

During his televised remarks on Monday, Duterte argued that missing documents could have led to the audit findings. He castigated the audit commission for prematurely releasing the report to the media. 

As the former long-time mayor of the southern city of Davao, Duterte said the COA previously put him in a negative light when it prematurely released audit reports that were later corrected.

Duterte said that as president, he has vowed to protect the country and that “includes your money.”

“Do you think I will allow a member of my cabinet to steal even just 1,000 pesos? You really think that I would allow it,” he said.

Duterte once said officials would be fired immediately if he detected “just a whiff” of corruption.  

He had fired a close political ally, Nicanor Faeldon, who had been embroiled in scandal at the prisons bureau. Former Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo quit over allegations the department overpaid a company run by her siblings.

On Tuesday, Duterte supporters and opposition lawmakers protested the president’s support of Duque.

Panfilo Lacson, who has supported Duterte and heads the Senate’s accounts committee, castigated the president for reprimanding a body that is beyond the scope of his office.

“It has a mandate to perform and no one can dictate to them,” Lacson said, emphasizing that all COA findings and recommendations are public documents.

“That said, the president is out of line in publicly castigating the COA, which is just performing its mandate and responsibility to the people and the constitution,” he said.

At the lower house, opposition Rep. Edcel Lagman called on the president to order the prosecution of officials involved in corruption rather than intimidate the audit commission.

“The right of the people to information cannot be negated and quashed by invoking claims that officials should be shielded from ‘corruption by perception,’” Lagman told reporters.


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