Thu. May 19th, 2022

by Charlie V. Manalo

During the congressional investigation on the results of the audit report conducted by the Commission on Audit on the Department of Health, former Budget undersecretary Christopher Lao’s name was floated after having been pointed to as the one who facilitated the acquisition of billions of pesos worth of face masks and face shields alleged to have been grossly overpriced, in his capacity as head of the Procurement Services of the Department of Budget and Management.

Lao was alleged to have been a former aide of Senator Christopher “Bong” Go during his stint as Special Assistant to the President, which the latter vehemently denied.          

Two Christophers in the hotseat. His link to Lao bared, Bong Go responds by asking Duque to resign – Rappler.

However, during Thursday’s House Committee on Public Accounts’ hearing on DoH’s utilization of Covid-19 funds, panel chair, Probinsyano Ako Rep. Jose Bonito Singson was able to squeeze from Lao’s mouth he indeed worked for Go before he got elected to the Senate in 2019.

While everyone was expecting Singson to go for the kill over the face mask and face shield controversial purchases, the solon instead grilled Lao on the subject of the government’s acquisition of two frigates from South Korea, an issue wherein Go’s name was also dragged. He of course denied any participation in the matter.

When Singson asked Lao if he had any involvement in the procurement of the two frigates given his former post at the Presidential Management Staff, Lao denied any participation in the transaction in whatever way possible.

Unfortunately for him, Singson was in the possession of a letter he (Lao) addressed to former Philippine Navy Flag Officer in Command Vice Admiral Ronald Joseph Mercado, inviting the former Philippine Navy officer to a meeting in Malacañang in relation to the planned purchase of two brand new frigates for the Philippine Navy worth P15.5 billion.

Lao signed the letter as Undersecretary, Office of the Special Assistant to the President, Presidential Management Staff.

Confronted with solid evidence contradicting his statement, Lao was forced to admit he indeed wrote a letter but only because there was a complaint on the planned procurement of the vessels. He added he signed as Undersecretary, Office of the SAP since they were under the PMS anyway.

Further, Lao insisted there was nothing wrong with the letter as they, (People in his office probably), “write official letters for them (People or offices concerned) to be apprised that there are complaints and if they wish to respond and air their side, we allow them so we can put on record what is their side and we just note it so if it will be evaluated in the future, we have an idea on what those issues are.”

Now, let’s take a look at the letter Lao sent to Mercado that time.

The letter read: Dear Sir: May we respectfully request for your attendance on this Friday, January 20, 2017, in the 4th floor New Executive Building Malacañang Manila at 2:00 p.m.”

“We would like to specifically discuss with you the issue on CMS Selection.”

Nowhere in the letter was it mentioned there was a complaint regarding the proposed acquisition of the ships.

In May 2013, the Department of National Defense opened the “Frigate Acquisition Project”, calling for the acquisition of two brand new frigates for the Philippine Navy with the contract price of Php 18 billion (around US$437 million as of May 2013). The two ships have now been commissioned into service, BRP Jose Rizal on July 10, 2020 and the BRP Antonio Luna on March 19, 2021.

Also, he cannot deny he worked for Go when he signed the letter as Undersecretary in the latter’s office. If he really is directly under the PMS, there is no reason why he would use the Office of the SAP to identify himself.

Aside from the fact that Go remains to be the highest regarded influence peddler in the Duterte Cabinet, so it would be just logical to use the Office of the SAP to command immediate attention and “respect” from the one he wants to “invite for some discussion.”

If that is not lying, then what does it make of him and Senator Go?

As the probe on alleged overpriced face masks and face shields took a backseat, Singson grilled further on the frigate issue.

While Lao maintains he only invited Mercado to discuss the complaints regarding the matter, Singson said that around that time, the turnover of the project was already about to commence as the contract was entered into sometime in early 2016.

In fact, Singson presented a copy of what appears to be a document pertaining to the procurement of the frigates with a post-it note of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana attached that read: “To Admiral Mercado Ronald, This was given to me by Bong Go. Go over it and make a report/rebuttal to be submitted to the Pres.”

Of course, Go has denied his involvement in any Department on National Defense biddings with no less than Lorenzana supporting his denial. However, the documents available showed otherwise.

Lao should have prepared himself for such a grilling as those issues and even copies of the letter and note were already published in a series of articles published by Rappler. But maybe he was only expecting to be grilled on the issue of face masks and face shields.

But even if he were to be grilled only on the subject of the face masks and face shields, I don’t think Lao could come out clean.

As officer-in-charge of the PS-DBM, Lao made procurements for DoH’s Covid-19 response in the amount of to P41 billion, among the face masks worth P27.72 apiece and face shields that cost P120 each.

His office bought more than 115 million pieces of face masks and face shields and later on proved to be difficult to sell to client agencies because the prices of the said items eventually dropped in the market. And as of the time of the CoA audit, P95 million of these face masks and shields were found to be sitting in depots.

Aggravating matters for him is that the CoA also flagged the lack of supporting documents to back DoH’s transfer of P41 billion to PS-DBM.

With the continuation of the hearing yet to be scheduled, maybe he could still make the necessary preparations to convince the panel there was nothing wrong with the transactions he had entered into.

But before that, he and Go would have to come up with foolproof alibi to prove he, Lao, has never been the senator’s aide before he got elected. He could resort to all the legal jargons he could come up with. But in the court of public opinion, a verdict has already been handed and someone has already been found to be lying.

Walang MOA between DOH and DBM re P42 billion – Senator Drilon

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