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Re Duque and PhilHealth: How strong a "whiff of corruption" will move Duterte? | CMFR

Re Duque and PhilHealth: How strong a “whiff of corruption” will move Duterte?

Photo from pcoo.gov.ph.

THEN CANDIDATE DUTERTE’s 2016 campaign made much of his supposed intolerance of corruption. This self-proclaimed virtue has not quite lost its magic with his supporters. But the more skeptical of Duterte’s boasts are counting the cases when his erring appointees were let off lightly, and allowed to resign without facing charges. The integrity of his boast about ending corruption is again being tested as Duterte continues to place his trust in DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III.

In the month of August, the press tracked the testimonies during the senate and house hearings on the PhilHealth scandal which has cost the loss of billions in public funds. Duque sits as chairman of the Board of the medical insurance system. While the president has ordered the resignation of PhilHealth’s high-ranking officials including its president, Ricardo Morales, he has retained Duque.

Weekly hearings in August made public the allegations of a whistle-blower about  corrupt practices in PhilHealth. Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto has said publicly  that Duque has to resign, quoting the president’s words that he would fire any government employee touched by any “whiff of corruption” —  a promise the newly elected president made in June 2016.

If Duque retains his authority in DOH and PhilHealth, the president’s orders to create an inter-agency task force led by the DOJ to conduct a reshuffle of personnel in PhilHealth would be a mere cosmetic distraction.

The media in general have given the corruption in PhilHealth the prominence it certainly deserves. Media reports highlighted testimonies about how PHP 15 billion had been diverted to private pockets and the naming of Duque as a key player. But journalists have not done much to provide information that counters the president’s anti-corruption claim. The media continue to include without question in their reports the administration’s assurances about Duque’s integrity.

CMFR monitored reports from the three major Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s One Balita); as well as selected news websites from August 26 to September 2, 2020.

Earlier whiff

Criticism for alleged irregularities related to the government’s response to COVID was already hounding Duterte in June. But the president himself vouched for Duque’s integrity. “My people here are clean and I still believe in them. I will stake my reputation as President. There are no anomalies taking place,” he said in a public address on June 22.

In a Philippine Daily Inquirer report on the following day, Duterte spokesperson Harry Roque echoed what the president said, adding that Duterte knows that Duque will not steal from the government since his family is wealthy, a quote that should have been followed with an account of the many instances of corruption involving already wealthy officials— and a note that the claim to wealth to deny involvement in corruption is an old  one that has lost credibility.

Updated whiff

Most reports have relied only on the revelations by witnesses in the Senate and House hearings in August, citing what lawmakers and embattled PhilHealth officials had to say. But the evidence cited has been damning.

As early as August 18, Duque had already been tagged by resigned anti-fraud officer Thorrsson Montes Keith, as the “godfather” of the corrupt PhilHealth “mafia.” He pointed out that as chairman of the board, Duque approved the appointments of executive officials who were part of the group behind the irregularities in the state firm.

In an interview with CNN Philippines the following morning, Palace spokesperson Harry Roque confirmed that Duque still had the president’s trust. “If he has ceased to have trust and confidence then Secretary Duque would no longer be in office because all Cabinet members serve at the pleasure of the President,” Roque said. Pressed further about what witnesses have said about Duque in relation to PhilHealth, Roque invoked the health secretary’s right to due process.

On September 1, the Senate Committee of the Whole issued a resolution recommending the criminal investigation of Duque. In his sponsorship speech, Sotto said that Duque violated Articles 217 and 220 of the Revised Penal Code and the  Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act for alleged malversation of public funds in the “improper and illegal implementation of the Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM),” or  cash advances to health care institutions.

More than a “whiff” of corruption has been attributed to Duque. But the Palace has remained firm in its defense of the health secretary. “Si Presidente naman po ay nagtitiwala pa rin kay Secretary Duque pero antayin po natin ang rekomendasyon ng task force,” Roque said in an interview with PTV 4’s Balita Ngayon on September 2.

A piece by Tita Valderrama, posted as commentary by VERA Files on August 31, tagged the PhilHealth scandal as one of the worst to shake the administration. But she also observed that while the president bragged about having dismissed some officials accused of corruption, the same have also been reappointed to other positions.

Unfortunately, there has been little effort on the part of other journalists to research these cases and add to the information illustrative of the discrepancy between the president’s words and actions. The media are not inclined to follow up on leads established by other news organizations, weakening the impact of the stories that break new ground. There should be more reports that prove that it is not only Duque who has enjoyed presidential favor and immunity.

Is President Duterte really against corruption? Several news organizations did report the findings of the senate hearings on the misuse of the interim reimbursement mechanism (IRM) to fund hospitals in the pandemic, on the bloated information technology budget, the “doctored” financial system and the “overpayment” to hospitals. The same media go back to the palace and record the official defense of Duque.

The press must stop asking the Palace to comment on the evidence against Duque. Journalists need to be more specific: How much of a “whiff of corruption” does Duterte need to question the integrity of a public official? The president’s confidence and trust in Duque show up the acclaimed anti-corruption stance as another empty boast. And this should be published not as a matter of opinion, but documented as fact. Pull quote: The press must stop asking the Palace to comment on the evidence against Duque. Journalists need to be more specific: How much of a “whiff of corruption” does Duterte need to question the integrity of a public official?