Ombudsman forms teams to probe health execs on COVID-19 response

THE OFFICE of the Ombudsman has formed two teams to investigate alleged anomalies committed by health officials, including Secretary Francisco T. Duque III, in the government’s response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak. “I directed the creation of two more investigating teams who will jointly investigate alleged irregularities and anomalies committed by DoH (Department of Health) officials and employees, including Health Sec. Francisco Duque, in relation to the response of the DoH during this pandemic,” Ombudsman Samuel R. Martires said in a statement on Wednesday. Mr. Martires said the probe will focus on several issues: the delayed procurement of personal protective equipment and other medical gears for healthcare workers; alleged lapses and irregularities that led to the death or infection of medical frontliners; delayed processing and release of benefits and financial assistance for “fallen” and infected healthcare workers; and the “confusing and delayed” reporting of COVID-19 related deaths and confirmed cases. He said the Office of the Ombudsman launched a probe“a few weeks prior to the lockdown” on March 15, but investigators were given a “runaround” by some DoH officials and personnel. Mr. Martires said he authorized the joint investigation team to file the necessary criminal and/or administrative case against any official or employee who fails or refuses to comply with the legal process of the probe.

The DoH, in a statement on Wednesday, said it welcomes the investigation and it is willing to comply with all directives from the Ombudsman. It also defended that the department has maintained transparency through “regular reporting of cases and deaths through its pressers, situation reports, and in its tracker, publicly available in the official channels. The health agency also said it has already released the cash benefits due as well as processing new claims. — Genshen L. Espedido

DoH warns public vs steroid used for severe COVID-19 patients

THE DEPARTMENT of Health has warned the public against using dexamethasone as self-medication to prevent coronavirus infection, following a study by researchers in England indicating that the steroid increases the survival rate of patients with severe conditions. Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire noted that the study of the University of Oxford involved only severe and critical patients. She also said that it has not been peer-reviewed, a process necessary for the completion of the study. “So dapat maipakalat natin sa mga tao, na hindi tayo bibili sa drug stores para inumin natin ito para ma-prevent na magkaka-COVID (coronavirus disease 2019) tayo (So we need to disseminate to the people that we should not buy it from drug stores, take it, and prevent contracting COVID),” she said in a virtual briefing. The health official did say that the use of dexamethasone for treating patients of the deadly disease would be a “breakthrough” for science once the study is completed. News reports say under the study, the steroid was administered to more than 2,000 severe patients of coronavirus. It reduced deaths by 35% among those under ventilator and by a fifth for those receiving oxygen. The trial included a control group of 4,000 patients who were not given the drug. Ms. Vergeire also said they are communicating with four manufacturing firms, including Chinese state-owned Sinopharm, for possible participation in trials of a vaccine for coronavirus. The government will also be submitting intent to the World Health Organization to join the solidarity trial for a vaccine, she said. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas

BIR still facing legal stumbling block over POGO taxation

THE BUREAU of Internal Revenue (BIR) admits legal issues are still keeping them from collecting franchise taxes from some Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs). In a briefing on Wednesday, BIR Deputy Commissioner for Operations Arnel S.D. Guballa said lawyers of some POGOs insist that they are not obliged to pay franchise taxes because the business income source is offshore. “Sinasabi nila na ‘Hindi kami taxable kasi ang POGO ay offshore, ito ay nasa ibang bansa’…so nandoon poyung legal issue (They say because POGOs are offshore, it comes from another country… so there lies the legal issue),” he said. While value-added tax and withholding tax are clearly specified and the government is able to collect these from complying POGOs, the franchise tax remains vague. “Hindi po siya ganon kaliwanag (it’s not that clear,” Mr. Guballa said. Nonetheless, the BIR is “pushing” for them to pay the franchise tax because the business operations is done in the Philippines. — Gillian M. Cortez

Enrile says ABS-CBN ownership remained with Lopezes despite sequestration order

FORMER Senate President Juan F. Ponce Enrile, who served as martial law administrator during the Marcos Administration, said the ownership of ABS-CBN Corp. remained with the Lopez family despite the sequestration order on all television and radio stations in the country. “The facilities of the entire ABS-CBN complex, broadcast complex, were placed under the control of the government. The title of all of these facilities was never transferred to the government. They remained with the owners,” Mr. Enrile said in a virtual hearing of the House of Representatives committees on legislative franchises, and good government and public accountability. In the same hearing, ABS-CBN Vice Chairman Augusto “Jake” A. Lopez said the government did not return the ownership of the network to the company. Mr. Enrile contradicted this saying, “Kaya hindi po tama ‘yung sinabi ni Jake Almeda Lopez na inagaw ni President (Ferdinand E.) Marcos ‘yung (What Jake Almeda said is not correct that Marcos snatched) ABS-CBN. It was part of the national policy to immobilize and control the communication system and the outlets for information in the entire nation and that is what we did,” Mr. Enrile said. Meanwhile, Albay Rep. Edcel C. Lagman said no Constitutional provision was violated when the properties and equipment of ABS-CBN was returned to the Lopez family after martial law. “Since the Lopez family as majority owners of ABS-CBN, it stands to reason that it should be the one compensated for the illegal seizure of ABS-CBN during martial law and the short take-over of the same at the aftermath of the EDSA People Power Revolution,” he said. The committees were tackling whether the acquisition of ABS-CBN by the Lopez family after the EDSA Revolution was pursuant to the Constitution in line with the broadcast firm’s application for a new franchise. — Genshen L. Espedido

DoJ says review of anti-terror bill focused on govt’s needs and mandate to fight violent extremism

JUSTICE SECRETARY Menardo I. Guevarra said their review of the controversial anti-terrorism bill focused on the needs of the government in combatting violent extremism as well as mandates under the Constitution. He said they analyzed each line of the bill, “always keeping in mind for whom and against whom the anti-terror bill was crafted.” “To the extent possible, we have considered the operational needs of the government in dealing with terrorism as well as our international commitments, without losing sight of the legal and constitutional parameters within which all state actions should be circumscribed,” he told reporters via Viber. The Department of Justice was due to submit its comments on Wednesday to the Office of the President. The bill has been approved by Congress and only requires the signature of the President to become law. President Rodrigo R. Duterte earlier certified the bill as urgent. Various sectors have expressed opposition to the proposed law, citing provisions that pose a threat to constitutional rights. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas

Inter-agency task force formed for Facebook dummy accounts probe

AN INTER-AGENCY task force has been formed for the investigation of the proliferation of dummy accounts on Facebook. Justice Undersecretary Markk L. Perete said the task force is composed of the National Privacy Commission, the Department of Information and Communications Technology, and the Department of Justice. “The contents of the accounts have already been preserved upon the request of our law enforcers,” he told reporters in a Viber message. As of June 15, Mr. Perete said 198 reports involving 300 accounts have been received. He explained last week that the number of accounts are higher than the reports because some have more than one dummy account. Mr. Perete also said the department is looking into all possible angles linked to the duplication. Suspects may be charged with computer-related identity theft under Republic Act No. 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas

Anti-red tape office resumes investigations

THE ANTI-RED Tape Authority (ARTA) has resumed formal investigations and filing of cases, which were suspended during the strict lockdown implemented to contain the coronavirus spread. ARTA Director-General Jeremiah B. Belgica, in a television interview Wednesday, said they resumed these processes on June 15. During the lockdown period, ARTA attended to red tape concerns by calling the agency concerned or setting meetings between the agency and stakeholder. “Prior to that, especially during the ECQ (enhanced community quarantine), it is not wise to distract all the government agencies with notices to explain when they are actually trying to respond in a global pandemic,” Mr. Belgica said. ARTA had previously extended the deadline for government agencies to report on their compliance with a Palace order to streamline regulation. Compliance reports are now due on July 25 from the initial March deadline. Meanwhile, the requirement for government agencies to implement three, seven, and 20 working days processing periods, depending on the transaction, remains suspended in consideration of continued health safety protocols. Mr. Belgica said ARTA already submitted the reforms undertaken for the World Bank’s 2021 Doing Business survey, predicting a nine-place jump to 86th from 95th last year, without accounting for the performance of other countries. Mr. Belgica said he expects an improvement in the indicators involved in enforcing contracts and dealing with construction permits. In the October 2019 report, the Philippines rose to 95th place from 124th the previous year. — Jenina P. Ibañez