Duterte expands role of DOJ-led task force to probe corruption in 'entire government'

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 27) — President Rodrigo Duterte said he has widened the role of the multi-agency task force that is investigating corruption at the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth). The task force led by the Department of Justice will now probe all government agencies hounded by rampant corruption allegations, starting with the Department of Public Works and Highways.

"This is my second call for a total campaign against corruption," he said in a recorded address to the nation broadcast on Tuesday. "Iyong task force na nabuo ko, this time we will look into every department. But upon my request, to focus sa corruption sa DPWH."

[Translation: The task force I created will now look into every department. Upon my request, they will start with the corruption in DPWH.]

The President issued an executive order addressed to Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, expanding the task force's scope to cover the entire government until his term ends in 2022 — vowing to concentrate on fighting corruption in his remaining years in office.

His move comes amid his critics' dismissal of his earlier vow not to tolerate "even a whiff" of corruption, noting that Duterte has even "recycled" or reappointed to other posts officials previously sacked due to allegations of involvement in anomalies.

"I hope that all government workers, officials are listening," he added. "This is a memorandum from me, the President, to Secretary Menardo Guevarra. Ang subject is to investigate allegations of corruption in the entire government. Lahat... It will be expanded with relentless energy."

President Duterte created in August a multi-agency task force to probe PhilHealth. The task force included officials from the Office of the Ombudsman, Commission on Audit (COA), Civil Service Commission, Office of the Executive Secretary, Office of the President, and the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission. They were given the power to investigate, conduct lifestyle checks, and preventively suspend PhilHealth personnel believed to be involved in corrupt practices.

Based on the probe's findings, the National Bureau of Investigation filed a complaint with the Ombudsman against former PhilHealth president and CEO Ricardo Morales and other officials of the agency over "questionable" cash advances given to hospitals earlier this year. Duterte said he is pleased with the actions taken against erring PhilHealth executives.

The President added that some government employees can expect suspension orders in the next few days. He reminded them that resigning amid investigation will not absolve them of possible anomalies.

"In the coming days, expect suspension." he said. "Kung i-suspend kita, may duda ako. Hindi ako mag-suspend ng tao na walang kasalanan."

The President also mentioned that the task force will look into the Department of Agriculture.

Despite his request for "special focus" on DPWH, Duterte reiterated his trust in Secretary Mark Villar.

"Let me state here and now: I have nothing against Secretary Villar," the President said. "He's one of the hardworking at maraming accomplishments. But accomplishments alone, to me, should not suffice."

Among the issues faced by the DPWH in the past weeks include the findings of the COA that flagged the overpricing and delayed implementation of some of its infrastructure projects in 2019, as well as multi-billion lump sum for the agency in the proposed 2021 budget.

Halfway through Duterte's presidency, a nonprofit watchdog flagged that corruption worsened in the Philippine government. Transparency International said the country ranked 113th of 180 countries studied on their perceived political integrity in 2019. This was the lowest ranking that the country has received since 2012.

Task force takes on the challenge

Guevarra, who leads the task force, said he will immediately work on the President's orders by organizing the group and identifying their strategy. He added that he is eyeing the creation of several "strike forces that will simultaneously attack" the various corruption-prone agencies.

The secretary also urged government workers to come forward if they have information on corrupt practices in their agencies so the task force can easily jumpstart its investigation.

"This new assignment is the toughest I have ever received from the president," Guevarra said in a statement. "Considering the breadth of this anti-corruption campaign, I will immediately focus on the organizational set-up and mechanism that will carry out the President's directive till the end of his term, as well as the order of priorities."

With no government office spared in the investigation, Duterte is confident that no corrupt practices can be tied to him nor his Cabinet Secretaries. He said he does not sign government transactions, vowing to resign if there is evidence he has received dirty money.

"Wala kayong makuha sa akin, lahat ng mga — puro milyonaryo ‘yan... Do not invent a sin against me because I have painstakingly avoided being a corrupt," he said.

The President stressed he is not part of any "syndicate" involved in corruption. He said he heeds his father’s advice to stay clean, a lesson he also imparts to his children who are in politics.