"Dalawang gabi ko lang babasahin ito." - President Rodrigo Duterte

Ex-Palawan governor Reyes is innocent – he is the forgotten victim of the Yellow Cult

I BELIEVE former Palawan governor Joel Reyes is innocent of the murder of Palawan broadcaster Dr. Gerry Ortega in January 2011. My studied opinion borne of research is that he was a victim of the alliance of a political overlord with an oligarch, in connivance with officials of the past Yellow regime.

I didn’t make this conclusion only with the Court of Appeals Special Division’s January 4 decision to drop the murder case against Reyes, on grounds that there was no evidence against him, and the sole accuser’s claims were “riddled with inconsistencies.”

I had the same conclusion seven years ago, when Reyes was first accused of the crime, which was explained in my column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer published on May 4, 2011, reproduced below. I had written the piece admittedly with some trepidation because I was the only writer to take such a stand – understandably because of the frenzy over the murder of a journalist. I cannot pretend that I am not relieved that a five-man court of justice has agreed with conclusions I made seven years ago.

The powerful Philippine Daily Inquirer at that time condemned Reyes in a ruthless trial by publicity. One of its reporters who returned to his Palawan home province as the paper’s correspondent there spewed so many articles that portrayed Reyes as a cold-blooded murderer, and claimed (in a complaint to PDI’s editors) that I was a paid hack.

The PDI reporter never disclosed that his book on Palawan was at that time being heavily financed by then Puerto Princesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn, Reyes’ political arch-enemy who had just two weeks after the murder accused him of the deed. The PDI and now Rappler, another Yellow media, obviously haven’t dropped their campaign against Reyes, as shown in its recent frontpages. (See accompanying image.)

Joining the Yellow Cult’s delirium against Reyes at the time, now Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque volunteered as a lawyer for the Ortega family. That is foul: he is dragging the Palace to join him in his former frenzy.

The Yellow Press, and the once-yellow Roque, are still after Reyes, despite a Court of Appeals ruling. Why are they reporting only the views of the minority dissenting opinions?

Sole accuser
I believed Reyes was innocent for one major reason. The sole accuser was one Rodolfo Edrad, who claimed to have hired Ortega’s killers.

This obviously has been a template of the Yellow Cult, which had accused Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of electoral sabotage—for which she was jailed for five years—on the basis of a single alleged witness, Norie Unas, who had been involved in the Maguindanao massacre, and who therefore would have been easily coerced to provide false testimony.

After seven years, with Reyes being totally helpless and becoming a fugitive in Thailand, no other witness corroborated Edrad’s allegations, with one of the alleged gunmen very mysteriously killed in prison. No other testimony nor evidence turned up to link Reyes to the Ortega murder. Many of Edrad’s claims were so preposterous that he was obviously making things up.

Right after the much-publicized killing, the justice department ordered a panel to investigate the allegation against Reyes. The panel dismissed it. In an unprecedented move though, then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima—at the time smelling so good to the public as a crusader—organized a new panel, composed of different investigators, which reversed the original recommendations, without submitting any new evidence. De Lima obviously told the new panel what recommendation they should submit to her.

The media blitz led by the PDI was that Reyes killed Ortega since the broadcaster had the goods on the governor – and possibly even President Arroyo herself – on how they looted billions of pesos from the Malampaya Fund, the royalties paid to the government by the Shell operators of the offshore natural gas fields in Palawan.

The Yellow Cult in its propaganda to get Arroyo step down form office had been for several years alleging that she and her officials had been looting this fund.

Six years after Ortega’s murder though, not a single iota of evidence was found that Reyes was involved in any anomaly over the P25 billion Malampaya fund. Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales filed only in December 2016 graft cases against 25 government officials involving the schemes by pork barrel scam queen Janet Napoles to similarly plunder the Malampaya Fund.

Former Palawan governor Reyes, former Puerto Princesa mayor Hagedorn, and present governor Alvarez.

Neither Reyes nor Arroyo was included among those indicted by the Ombudsman.

Two motives
I can think of two reasons why Reyes was framed for the Ortega murder and the Yellow Cult moved heaven and earth to convict him of this deed.

First, Reyes was a staunch supporter of Arroyo, while his political enemies Hagedorn and tycoon Jose Alvarez had become allies of the Yellow Cult. Pinning down Reyes over Ortega’s murder would, as it did, remove him and his brother out of Palawan’s political landscape, and especially out of their hometown Coron, which had become a prime tourist (read huge revenue-generating) area.

Two, the Yellow Cult had brainwashed themselves into believing that Arroyo’s alleged raiding of the Malampaya Fund was one of, or even her biggest crime. I was told that Reyes was approached and told that if he could spill the beans on Malampaya, the murder charges would be dropped. But what beans could Reyes spill?

There is a rather simple argument that would make any objective observer doubt the charges against Reyes.

There have been over 100 killings of journalists for whatever reason since 1992, according to the New York self-styled Committee to Protect Journalists. To this day, how many cases have been solved, with its mastermind identified and charged?

None—except Reyes. Whatever one thinks of Reyes, I don’t think he was so stupid as to leave evidence or testimony for the crime, to be so easily found just two weeks after the murder. The real masterminds framed Reyes so well, but it was so contrived as to be quite obvious, as my column below shows.

The big tragedy here is not uncommon: People who think they are fighting for justice unwittingly are concealing the real criminals.

Following is my May 4, 2011 column in the PDI, somewhat abbreviated, which contains more details on this issue:

Just weeks after the January 24 murder of broadcaster and environmentalist Dr. Gerry Ortega in Puerto Princesa, Mayor Edward Hagedorn dramatically announced to the press that the crime had been solved—swiftly as he had vowed over Ortega’s grave. Most of the media would buy Hagedorn’s claims hook, line and sinker.

Hagedorn pointed the finger at his political rival, former Palawan Gov. Joel T. Reyes. He claimed that one Rodolfo Edrad, who he alleged was Reyes close-in aide, had surrendered to him and confessed to having hired the killer upon the ex-governor’s orders. He had even been given, using Hagedorn’s words, “a blow-by-blow account” of how Reyes ordered the murder.

Hagedorn wasn’t aware that he was being ridiculous in his attempt to explain why Edrad confessed so easily: “The softness of Edrad’s heart led to the identification of the mastermind.” It turns out though that Edrad is hardly a person anyone would describe as having a soft heart.

Despite his denials, the accuser of the ex-governor was actually a fugitive from the law, with warrants of arrest issued against him for a vicious murder in 2007. He therefore would have nothing to lose and much to gain by giving false testimony, as long as he is paid for it by some patron.

To give Edrad some credibility, Hagedorn said that he was an ex-Marine who unfortunately was discharged because of his participation in the Oakwood mutiny. No such marine in their roster, past or present, the Philippine Marine Corps spokesman reported. He wasn’t at all Reyes’ “close-in aide,” but months before the murder had, quite suspiciously, bugged the ex-governor, unsuccessfully, to hire him as a gofer.

Edrad’s claims were so contrived as to be preposterous: Expecting to be asked how he could have spent in two weeks the P500,000 which the ex-governor allegedly paid him for the crime, he said he was robbed by six goons.

That powerful, rich personalities were behind Edrad became all too obvious in the April 15 affidavit the finger-pointer supposedly wrote. The 48-page affidavit was written in flawless English using sophisticated legal terms, and even contained a complicated matrix to argue that Reyes’ counter-arguments were erroneous.

It was in all likelihood written by a lawyer from the law firm representing Edrad: that of Evaristo Gana, not at all a cheap lawyer. Without any employment and hardly a tycoon, it was a mystery how Edrad could afford such an expensive law firm. The affidavit though clearly aimed for a newspaper headline:

“I have been offered no less than P25 million in exchange for recanting my previous statements against (former Governor Reyes). I have refused and will continue to refuse any bribe… The truth cannot be bought.”

With Edrad’s claims against Reyes appearing to be contrived, my attention was turned to the person to whom Edrad had “surrendered” and who backed his accusations to the hilt: Hagedorn.

It seemed to be a big blunder that another person who had some connection to the ex-governor was accused of being part of the conspiracy. Percival Lecias, the photographer of Reyes’ wife, was detained for several days by the police and National Bureau of Investigation agents, after which he issued a statement supporting Edrad’s statements. But Lecias claimed a day later that he was forced by NBI operatives to make those statements, and filed a case against them at the Commission on Human Rights.

He claimed under oath that when he was brought to the NBI office in Manila, Hagedorn and, significantly, tycoon Jose “Pepito” Alvarez met him there, with the mayor even giving him a wad of cash as he told him to “side with the truth.” Alvarez was known to have blamed his defeat in the recent gubernatorial elections on Reyes, who supported former Rep. Abraham Mitra.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

PDI’s selection of a Yellow blogger as ‘Filipino of the Year’ is an insult to the nation

DUTERTE IS OBJECTIVELY AND IRREFUTABLY THE FILIPINO OF THE YEAR
THE Philippine Daily Inquirer chose blogger Jover Laurio as its Filipino of the Year, and placed the soldiers and policemen who fought against the IS-linked terrorists in Marawi only in the second rung. This not only is an indication of the very sorry state of journalism in the country.

The Inquirer has spat on the graves of our uniformed men who were killed by terrorists in Marawi. Because of its Yellow partisanship, one of the country’s biggest newspapers in the country has insulted the nation.

As this newspaper’s investigative series on the Battle of Marawi has revealed, the Moro jihadists linked with the Middle-East based Islamic State of Iraq and Syria meticulously planned their invasion for months, and were heavily financed by the IS. It was planned to be a breakthrough victory for the IS, its major push outside the Middle East.

If Marawi had not been retaken, the IS would have established a foothold in our country and in Southeast Asia, to which thousands of jihadists all over the radical Muslim world would have rushed, as they did in Afghanistan thirty years ago, and more recently in Iraq and Syria. The IS with its billions of dollars, partly raised from the numerous oil fields it captured, would have thrown hundreds of millions of dollars to finance the Moro jihadists.

Do I really need to explain more that the Republic’s victory over the IS-linked terrorists in Marawi has far-reaching consequences not only for the future of the Philippines but for that of Southeast Asia, where the biggest religion is Islam? That we owe our future as a nation to those who threw out the terrorists that had taken over Marawi?

Do I really need to explain that the Filipino of 2017 should be those who gave their lives in the fight against the terrorists in Marawi, all 157 soldiers and seven policemen, most of whom were in their 20s and early 30s, with several just fresh out of our Philippine Military Academy who left behind young widows and babies?

C’mon, if we just drop for a moment our partisanship, shouldn’t the man who ultimately led the troops in Marawi, who raised their morale – in one instance, crying with the widows of the those killed – get some credit, and be honored as 2017’s man of the year – President Duterte?

Not only for that, again if we just strain to drop our partisanship, but for his achievements this year – winning the war against illegal drugs, fighting corruption, setting an independent foreign policy, cracking down on oligarchs’ unpaid debts to government, ordering free college tuition in all state universities, and free hospitalization for the poor – shouldn’t Duterte be hands down, and indisputably, the Filipino of the Year?

Who should we honor? Duterte and his fallen troops, or Inquirer’s noisy netizen?

Hate him or love him, it’s a no-brainer that Duterte has affected the lives of Filipinos in 2017 so much he is irrefutably the Filipino of the Year. He may falter in 2018 and succeeding years, but there is no doubt that he has done his job remarkably well in 2017.

Duterte’s achievements aren’t my illusions: a high 69 percent of Filipinos are cheering this president, and an all-time record-high of 96 percent of them think this year will be better, a proxy indicator for confidence over his rule.

Are the PDI editors so deeply Yellow that they refuse to give credit to Duterte because the allegations of extra-judicial killings in his war against illegal drugs and his allowing Marcos’ corpse to be buried at the Libingan have disqualified him from being recognized as the Filipino of the Year?

Was there an instruction to PDI editors not to put Duterte in their nomination forms, coming from its Rufino-Prieto owners? Unsurprisingly, since Duterte kicked them out of the Mile Long property they have held illegally for 30 years and whose Dunkin’ Donuts he claims owe government P1.5 billion in unpaid taxes. Indeed, as the PDI itself revealed, the nominees for Filipinos of the Year, excluding Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, were all Yellows and anti-Duterte personalities.

It is astonishing that not a single one of the PDI’s 49 editors polled nominated Duterte. Are they so afraid of the newspaper’s owners, or so brainwashed by the Yellow Cult?

That PDI is so much a Yellow newspaper, and detests Duterte at very unprofessional levels, has become irrefutable with their choice of Filipino of the Year. All past presidents since the feature was started in 1991, were chosen as Filipino of the Year, with many designated as such on the year or year after they assumed power – Joseph Estrada in 1998, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2002, and President Aquino in 2010. (Cory Aquino was named twice, in 1997 and 1999; Fidel Ramos in 1996).

The PDI’s insult to Duterte and the military who fought off the IS-linked jihadists is exacerbated by the choice of a Yellow blogger Laurio.

Mention Duterte and our soldiers who fought in Marawi anywhere, and there is no Filipino who wouldn’t recognize them. Laurio, PinoyAko blog? Only those who spend so much time in the internet would recognize her, and only editors whose world has been only in media would think she has contributed anything to the nation.

I am aghast that veteran print journalists would pay tribute to a blogger whom they would never recruit as a reporter or even a newsroom clerk, who has never written more than three paragraphs arguing a particular point, who has not contributed an iota to the national discourse, nor to journalism. Her expertise – and appeal as a blogger — is limited to bad-mouthing supporters of Duterte with street-lingo like “balahura” and “inggitera”.

I am angry that PDI even used as site for its photo-shoot for its article on Laurio the Bantayog ng mga Bayani, a monument for those who fought for their beliefs in the martial-law era, where the names of many of my dear militant comrade-friends, and even of my late wife Raquel, are engraved in the marble walls. That is so foul. Is the PDI elevating Laurio as a heroine at par with those whose names are there such as Jovito Salonga and Lorenzo Tanada?

Did this blogger in the thousand posts she claims she has made ever pay tribute to them, or to their ideals?

I am sad that a once prestigious newspaper which, despite its decline in power, still has a big role in national discourse, couldn’t be professional, and nonpartisan enough to look for and honor Filipinos who would inspire us as a nation and are models for the Filipino youth.

The PDI editors have elevated a petty blogger, whose sole achievement has been to make daily hateful, and intellectually vapid posts against Duterte and his supporters in order to while away her time in traffic, to the pantheon of our presidents, our militarymen killed fighting our enemies, and of course, of a fearless, crusading journalist, their late editor in chief Lety Magsanoc, its Filipino of the Year just two years ago.

She must be turning in her grave.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Aquino gang hijacked P10.6-B senior citizens’ funds

IT is another blatant, scandalous instance of the previous regime’s culture of impunity in violating budget laws.

Just a few months before he stepped down from power, former President Benigno Aquino 3rd in connivance with his budget secretary, Florencio Abad, and health secretary, Janette Garin, hijacked P10.6 billion in funds that were mandated by law to be used for the insurance premiums of the country’s 7 million senior citizens, according to government documents.*

This P10.6billion was instead allocated to dubious health department projects that Congress had not authorized. At best, these projects were designed to boost the Liberal Party’s candidates’ chances in the 2016 elections, by prettifying the administration’s image as taking care of citizens’ health needs.

At worst though— and probably their real nature—the projects were of the type that since the Republic’s founding have been widely known as a source of facile corruption: construction of small structures difficult to monitor if they complied with specifications, or even if they were built at all.

 

Another, bigger project of the Dengvaxia trio?

This P10.6 billion hijacked funds were triple the P3 billion the Aquino gang spent to buy the defective Dengvaxia vaccine. The former president’s inordinate rush to purchase it, to the point of violating budget laws, has raised widespread suspicion of corruption in the form of commissions.

The Department of Justice, as it is doing in the case of the Dengvaxia purchase, should mobilize a bigger team to investigate this alleged hijacking of funds, that if true, has endangered the Philippine Health Insurance Corp.’s finances and risked the welfare of the country’s 7 million senior citizens, the most vulnerable sector of its adult citizenry.

Two laws had ordered the government to raise this P10.6 billion to fund senior citizens’ insurance premiums for 2015 with the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (Philhealth).

Republic Act 10351 of 2012 was the so-called “sin tax” law, which increased levies on liquor and tobacco. It required that after deducting a part of the proceeds allocated for small tobacco farmers from this levy, 80 percent of the remaining balance should be allocated for the National Health Insurance Program.

This law was followed up by Republic Act 10645 of 2014, which required that all senior citizens be covered by Philhealth’s health insurance, to be funded from the sin-tax proceeds.

For 2015, the first year of that law’s implementation, the budget department and Congress computed that P10.6 billion from the sin tax law proceeds were to be used to fund senior citizens’ insurance premiums. It was included in the Congress’ budget bill sent to Aquino for signing into law.

President Aquino, however, in his veto message to Congress in December 2014, instead classified that budget for senior citizens as part of the national budget’s “Unprogrammed Fund,” which is essentially a reserve contingent fund set aside for unforeseen developments that require bigger government expenses.

It is astonishing that Congress acquiesced to Aquino’s order, which ignored the sin-tax law. That law very categorically provided that part of the higher levies on sin products be used to fund senior citizens’ insurance premiums. How could it be classified into the budget’s “Unprogrammed Fund”?

Garin and Padilla’s letter for the senior citizens’ fund to be used elsewhere

At the time, Aquino’s act of reclassification appeared to be simply an accounting matter, as it was just one of the two dozen items in the budget that he vetoed. However, it reveals that the President had planned since that time for the fund for senior citizens to be used for purposes other than what Congress had authorized.

The template was clearly from Aquino’s infamous P150 Disbursement Acceleration Program in 2012 and 2013, under which he hijacked budgets authorized by Congress, a part of which he used to bribe senators in Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment trial as well as to distribute to his allies. Quite obviously, Aquino was confident that his anointed Mar Roxas would be the next president, so that his violation of budget laws would be buried forever.

In August 2015, less than a year after the May 2016 national elections, Aquino put his plot in motion.

Garin, the new health secretary Aquino appointed in February 2015 together with Philhealth president Alexander Padilla—appointed Bureau of Customs head in 1987 by Cory Aquino—asked the budget secretary, Abad, that “P10.6 billion unprogrammed appropriations” be used instead for three purposes.

These were the construction of 4,000 “TSeKap health stations” all over the country; equipment for barangay health stations; and “infrastructure upgrading and equipment provision” for rural health units. Anyone familiar with corruption in the Philippines would see that such projects are the easiest for the corrupt to make money out of, as they are difficult to monitor.

To this day, there has been no official report or audit if the P10.6 billion was indeed used for the purposes indicated.

There have been reports though that less than 10 percent of the health stations were constructed, even as the contractors had already received the funds for these. In December 2016, a resolution was filed in the House of Representatives by two congressmen asking for an investigation of the program to build these heath stations. For some unknown reason, the investigation was aborted.

There has been no report if Philhealth ever received P10.6 billion to fund what was calculated as the money needed to cover senior citizens’ insurance premiums in 2015.

A source claimed it wasn’t. He explained that obviously the Aquino gang decided to ignore actuarial calculations that this money was needed.

Eddie Dorotan, a former mayor of a Bicol town who still is a board member representing local chief executives, was quoted in March 2016 in the local newspaper Bicol Today that Philhealth was in dire financial straits. However, then Philhealth CEO Padilla in an interview with CNN Philippines claimed that this was false, and that the state firm’s reserve funds were at a healthy P128 billion level in 2015.

Blogger Rafael Nieto—who broke the story on the hijacking of senior citizens’ funds—reported that in a presentation made early last year to the Philhealth board by director Anthony Leachon (who represents the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas), three different financial and actuarial projections showed that the firm would run out of reserves by the middle of this year.

If that happens, Philhealth won’t be able to pay the hospitals that have been providing medical services to senior citizens. The hospitals won’t have any option but to stop doing so, endangering the lives of vulnerable senior citizens.

Obviously the Aquino administration’s gang of three, as they did in the case of the Dengvaxia debacle, had absolutely no compunction about risking the lives of millions of Filipinos.

* I—and the nation—owe blogger Rey Joseph Nieto for breaking this Philhealth controversy in his popular blog Thinking Pinoy. I acquired several of the documents he cited, and verified his report, from my sources whom I am uncertain if they also his sources.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Dogmas Duterte demolished in 2017

THE year 2017 will be remembered as the year a mayor from Mindanao who surprisingly became President demolished long-held national political and cultural dogmas and myths, whose persistence has been a formidable obstacle to our growth as a nation—and yet he continued to be immensely popular.

First, Duterte demolished the dogma that a Philippine president and the Republic should consider the United States as its big white brother, that its national interests are our national interests. In our post-war history. Cory Aquino, her anointed, the West Point-trained Fidel Ramos, and her son Benigno III were totally subservient to the US, while the other two just paid lip service to the policy of undertaking an independent foreign policy.

In a period when the US maneuvered geopolitically and pressured Asian countries to isolate China for its alleged aggressiveness in the South China Sea, Duterte drew the country closer to the emerging Asian superpower, not just diplomatically but in terms of economic relationship.

He has managed to change Filipinos’ centuries-old anti-Chinese bias, with the nation now looking at China as its main trade partner and the funder for its much-needed infrastructure projects.

Part of the love-America dogma was that no president would remain popular—and would become ripe for overthrow—if he crossed the US overlords. The reasoning was that—in sharp contrast to our neighbors— probably nearly all of middle- and upper-class Filipinos have relatives who migrated to the US (or its sister country, Canada). Most of the masses on the other hand still dream of migrating to that land of milk and honey.

Duterte broke that myth, with his popularity even surging to a record 69 percent of Filipinos (based on the latest December polls) satisfied with his rule, a rise from his 65 percent grade when he assumed office in June 2016.

He destroyed the hold of these three on the nation.

Second, Duterte broke the dogma that was the Spanish colonizers’ main tool for occupying a country which allowed them to deploy only a minimal military force: That the Catholic Church was God’s representative on earth, and rulers and the ruled must do what it says.

Until I shed the notion when I became a Marxist in my teens, I still believed a family myth my father told me, that our clan became impoverished because a great-grandfather told a local friar to his face, after the cleric got his laundrywoman pregnant: “Putangina mong pari ka!”

Well, it wasn’t just a lowly provincial friar that Duterte cursed, even if it was in jest. It was the Pope himself, the very representative of Jesus Christ on earth. And unlike the reason why my great-grandfather cursed the friar, Duterte cursed the beloved Pope Francis for the traffic he caused during his visit that made Duterte spend five hours in his car.

Because of that mortal sin against the Pope, the local Catholic Church has secretly labelled Duterte as the Anti-Christ and mobilized all but its archangels to rouse public opinion to overthrow him, using as its cause célèbre the “extrajudicial executions” issue in his war against drugs. Its two institutions for brainwashing our youth—the Ateneo de Manila and De La Salle universities—became the think-tanks for raining fire and brimstone on Duterte.

Duterte obviously has survived the Church’s war vs Duterte. The Church’s field marshal for this war, Archbishop Socrates Villegas—who saw Duterte as the Marcos that he, the new Cardinal Sin, would topple—is drifting to political oblivion and has even lost his main post as president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. I can’t even remember the last press release of the moralistic churchgoers’ group, the pretentiously-named National Transformation Council. Its last posting on its official Facebook page was an article last month lifted from some crappy website about Duterte telling NDF consultants to surrender.

Third, Duterte has shattered the dogma that no Philippine president would get elected to the post, and survive for long without—or resist the bribery of—the oligarchy. His two main rivals to the presidency were heavily bankrolled by national oligarchs, competing for which of their factions would get their puppet to win. Duterte had only Davao-level rich businessmen to finance his campaign.

And his camp even exposed and prosecuted the illegality of the source of the wealth of a Davao billionaire who supported him in the elections.

Duterte in 2017 collected the unpaid taxes of Mighty Corp., the country’s second biggest cigarette manufacturer which had grown through all of the past post-war presidents. Think of “10 percent” of the taxes collected—P30 billion—and one would get a realistic idea of the billions of reasons why this tobacco oligarch survived all of the past presidencies. Think in the same way about the P6 billion the Duterte administration collected in unpaid navigational fees from Philippine Airlines, owned by once-powerful oligarch Lucio Tan.

Fourth, Duterte destroyed the dogma of the invincibility of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which had claimed to be the torchbearer of the spirit of the glorious People Power Revolution. No president since 1986 dared cross the paper. Duterte went for the jugular: He pursued the illegal hold of the newspaper’s owners, the Rufino-Prieto family over the MileLong property in the lucrative commercial district of Makati, kicking the clan out of the area last September, and is pursuing the collection of P1.8 billion in unpaid rentals.

(Unfortunately though, the Bureau of Internal Revenue’s bureaucrats—or grafters—reportedly have ignored their boss, and are on the brink of reducing the tax liabilities of the Rufino-Prietos’ Dunkin Donuts’ company to just P20 million, a preposterous amount compared to the P1.5 billion that Duterte himself had publicly claimed it owed government since 2007. )

Fifth, Duterte has destroyed the myth that the Yellow Cult has been God’s gift of governance to the Philippines. That shattered myth has remarkably persisted that even somebody whose job is to study governance in the country, one Richard Heydarian—who boasts in his biodata that he is a regular contributor to Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations, and a dozen other US media outfits—idolizes the cult’s leader Benigno Aquino 3rd to this day.

In his recent 100-page “book” released late last year, Heydarian wrote: “Aquino was arguably the best president in recent memory…As popular as Aquino was at home he was even a bigger celebrity outside, especially to the global media-business complex. Under his watch, the Philippines [transformed]from a developing country into a full-fledged emerging market.”

Heydarian is a sloppy scholar but a prolific writer who impresses foreign editors who know little about the Philippines by quoting other scholarly works at the rate of one every two paragraphs. However, his gall in continuing to idolize Aquino indicates how persistent the Yellow myth is.

By simply ignoring the Aquinos, allowing what they detested most, which was to allow the dictator Marcos’ burial at the National Heroes Cemetery, and governing the Philippines in way that highlighted Aquino 3rd’s do-nothing, care-about-nothing rule, Duterte has started to bury this myth of the Yellow Cult that US State Department operators created in 1986 and has nurtured since. The Yellow Cult’s excrements — such as the Mamapasano massacre, the Dengvaxia debacle, the hijacking of government funds — have floated to the surface for the public to be aghast over.

This list of dogmas and myths that Duterte destroyed is certainly incomplete. But with his demolition of just those five that have obstructed the Philippines’ growth as a nation, I have become optimistic about this land’s future.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Duterte’s tax reform: Nothing short of revolutionary

IT will probably be only years after President Duterte steps down from office that we will realize that his tax reform program which the Congress—surprisingly, really—approved at breakneck speed is nothing short of revolutionary.

Not even the supposedly radical, communist National Democratic Front ever dared to demand—or even think of—what Duterte’s administration has done through the tax reform law, Republic Act 10963, which was passed the other day.

This is to exempt from any income tax the country’s lower classes—up to those receiving around P20,000 per month. They have been taxed at least 5 percent since 1997, amounting to P14,500 to P50,000 annually. Some 7 million workers are estimated to be exempted from income taxes under the new law, called the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Act (TRAIN).

The taxes squeezed from the lower classes for two decades have been actually higher as companies have been required to withhold 10 percent of salaries of all their staff, which they remit to the Bureau of Internal Revenue. In practice, the lower classes mostly no longer file the claims for a tax refund.

President Duterte signs tax reform bill into law.

Even those with incomes P25,000 to P80,000 per month—roughly the country’s middle-class—will see their income taxes significantly reduced by P55,000 to P98,000 from 2018 to 2023. (See chart)

The new income tax rates starting 2018.

I don’t think I am exaggerating when I claim that this part of the Duterte tax reform is nothing short of revolutionary. Such exemption of the poorest workers from income taxes has never been done. Duterte’s TRAIN has been the most sweeping reduction in income taxes ever.

Past presidents of course all had considered such exemptions or reductions as a way of building up their popularity with the people. They all had backed down after their finance secretaries told them that this risked a drastic fall in revenues, which could lead to a fiscal crisis. Their economic teams have also told them, that, counter-intuitively, such revenues from the lower classes are huge and easiest to collect, since it is the companies themselves that remit the 10 percent withholding taxes.

Perhaps the fact that the tax reform program’s main architect, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, unlike nearly all of his predecessors, wasn’t a big-business finance officer or accountant who see only static balance sheets. Dominguez has been for most of his working life a hands-on businessman, who intuitively grasped the fact that tax-rate reductions could lead to increased consumption of goods and services, and therefore to economic growth.

But it is not just Dominguez of course who is responsible for the tax reform program. Primarily, it is Duterte’s achievement since, with his overwhelming popularity, and with the acumen for parliamentary work of his handpicked House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and Senate President Aquilino Pimentel 3rd, that the tax reform bill was passed so quickly and overwhelmingly—246 against 9in the House of Representatives and 17 to 1 in the Senate. The sole vote against the tax reform law was that of Sen. Risa Hontiveros.

The tax reform project was quite wisely launched as soon as Duterte assumed office, and therefore the law could be enacted at the height of his political support.

The absurdity of the past income tax rates is obvious in that the highest tax bracket are those earning P42,000 monthly or more. This means that the same tax rate applies whether you’re a lower-middle-class employee earning P42,000 per month or a PLDT or an Ayala executive earning, say, P2 million a month.

The new law drastically changes this, with rising rates for four tiers of income: those earning annually P250,000 but not over P800,000; those earning over P400,000 but not over P800,000; over P800,000 to not over P8 million; and those earning over P8 million.

In Duterte’s mind, his tax reform is about freeing the working class from the burden of taxes, and shifting it to the classes that can afford it, the rich.

Indeed, the main tool for the redistribution of assets in a democratic, capitalist system has been through taxes, so much so that the most equitable countries in the world, such as the Scandinavian nations and Canada, impose taxes on the rich to take from them half of their income. In some welfare-state nations, taxes on the transfer of inheritance are very steep so as to encourage billionaires to invest their wealth more into industries and philanthropy.

However, the economics behind TRAIN is the belief that a consumption-based tax system, one based on taxing purchases of services and goods, is better than a tax system based on incomes, and even serves to stimulate the economy. Thus, TRAIN, while reducing income taxes, will expand the value-added tax system and will raise tax rates on the purchase of sweetened beverages, fuels, tobacco, coal and luxury cars.

This of course will also hit the poor in terms of higher rates of inflation, but Duterte and Dominguez’s calculations—to which the Congress obviously agreed by passing the tax-reform law—show that this won’t be big enough to eat into their increased incomes resulting from their being exempted from income taxes.

The big risk in such a program is whether the revenue lost from the reduced income taxes will be bigger than those raised from the consumption tax. Dominguez calculates that the net impact will be P134 billion in revenues, a significant part of which will be through a more efficient tax collection due to TRAIN’s simplified rates not only for income taxes but for such taxes as donors’ and estate taxes.

But economics is never ever an exact science, and there is really no assurance that Dominguez’s calculations are correct, and revenues may even fall drastically. But revolutions are never, as Mao Zedong pointed out, a picnic.

After Duterte’s TRAIN though, I don’t think any president would even think of imposing taxes on the 7 million he has exempted starting next year.

Even just with this liberation of the working classes from its income-tax burden, Duterte in his 18 months in office has already made his enduring legacy.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

On the Dengvaxia debacle, Bro. Luistro betrayed his flock

BRO. Armin Luistro, the previous regime’s education secretary, is as much to blame as President Aquino and his health secretary, Janette Garin, for risking the health and even lives of over 800,000 Grade 4 pupils inoculated with the faulty Dengvaxia anti-dengue vaccine. Its manufacturer Sanofi itself last month admitted that its product could worsen those who had never been ill with dengue before.

While embracing the faulty Dengvaxia, Luistro in 2015 blocked a vaccination program to counter a much deadlier disease in the country, cervical cancer, which kills much more Filipinos than dengue.

On March 28, 2016, Luistro issued Memorandum No. 50, ordering that Dengvaxia be administered to “all Grade 4 learners, nine years old and above, currently enrolled in public elementary schools in the National Capital Region, Region III, and IV-A (Calabarzon).”

“Regional directors, school division superintendents, and other school officials are enjoined to provide full support in the conduct” of the mass vaccination program, the memo read.

The Department of Health (DoH) has no authority to order the education department to allow any kind of vaccination of the public-school students it supervises. It is the education secretary’s sole prerogative.

If Luistro had not ordered his department to undertake the Dengvaxia vaccination program, Garin would have had to rely on community health centers to implement it, which in the past had been extremely slow in undertaking such mass vaccination. Some 800,000 schoolchildren would not have been vaccinated so swiftly, probably just 80,000 and she and Aquino would not be able to justify to the public why 1 million doses of Dengvaxia were ordered costing P3 billion.

The trio responsible for the vaccine fiasco, although one could have committed another wrongdoing, blocking a program to fight cervical cancer.

A new administration – with a new health secretary – with no pecuniary interest in Dengvaxia that cost billions of pesos, would have suspended the program that was so rushed that it reeked, at best, of criminal negligence.

Using the religious images Luistro would be familiar with, he betrayed his flock, the students under his care as education secretary.

Astonishing support
Two things make Luistro’s support of the Dengvaxia program quite astonishing.

First, before joining government, he had been president for four years of the De La Salle University, which has a College of Medicine. This college had been doing research on dengue for many years, and was even awarded P20 million in 2014 by the science and technology department for such studies.

Did Luistro even bother to call his former colleagues to give him a memo on Dengvaxia’s safety and efficacy? No. He was apparently told by Aquino to implement the Dengvaxia program, and he said, “as soon as possible, sir.”

More importantly, Luistro before had demonstrated he could just ignore any of the health department’s vaccination program if he had questions on it.

In 2015, he blocked that department’s mass vaccination program, also for Grade4 schoolchildren in the country’s 20 poorest provinces to inoculate them against the human papilloma virus (HPV) which has been scientifically proven to cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancer in women and anal cancer and testicular warts in men. (Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths here and in the world. In the Philippines, more than 6,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed every year. HPV infection causes more than 99 percent of cervical cancer cases among women.)

The health department eventually abandoned its efforts to get Luistro to authorize its anti-HPV program. It had to rely on the health centers under the local government units, so that to this day less than 50,000 schoolchildren have been vaccinated against the virus.

Fortunately, Luistro was no longer education secretary when President Duterte’s first health secretary, Paulynn Ubial, launched in August a school-based mass anti-HPV vaccination program targeting 700,000 nine-year-old girls in 47 provinces, with Education Secretary Leonor Briones’ enthusiastic support.

Anti-HPV
Luistro didn’t even bother to explain why he blocked the anti-HPV program. However, columnist Rina Jimenez-David reported in August 2015 that Luistro in a phone conversation had told her: “I did not rule out the HPV vaccine program. I merely asked for more time to study it.” But Luistro never completed his “study” so that the health department just gave up on trying to convince him, and shelved the entire program entirely.

If Aquino was determined to improve the health of Filipinos, as he justified his rush to implement his Dengvaxia plot, then why didn’t he order Luistro to support the program against cervical cancer, which has been far more deadly than dengue?

David also reported that Luistro told her: “I talked with Secretary Garin and asked her if we could have more time to discuss the logistics and the science behind the program.”

His comment is astonishing, if placed in the context of his total support for Dengvaxia, which he obviously didn’t bother to study “the science” behind it.

In 2015, the anti-HPV vaccines (Gardasil and Cervarix) had been commercially available for nine years, produced by two competing big pharmaceutical firms, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline. They were approved and even recommended by the World Health Organization for routine mass vaccination. Over 100 countries use the anti-HPV vaccines.

This is in sharp contrast to Dengvaxia, which became commercially available only in 2015 and hadn’t been recommended by the WHO for mass vaccination programs. It was used by only one country in a mass vaccination program– Brazil – when Aquino ordered P3 billion worth of the vaccine.

In 2016, just a bit more than 1 million dosages of Dengvaxia had been injected into people, 300,000 in Brazil and 800,000 in the Philippines – in contrast to the 100 million doses of the anti-HPV administered all over the world.

Moralistic beliefs
The anti-HPV vaccines had been approved in early 2015 by both our Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Formulary Executive Council when Luistro claimed that he would still need to study whether it was safe.

In contrast, the FDA was rushed—and pressured—to approve Dengvaxia three weeks after Aquino met in December 2015 with its manufacturer’s executives. The FEC only gave it a one-year approval, and required that it be used only in a phased manner.

This purported man of God, who’s back as president of De La Salle University, obviously was lying on the reason why he blocked the anti-HPV vaccination program.

As columnist David and several others have disclosed, the real reason for his opposition—which should teach government never, never to appoint a cleric to a key position—is his moralistic belief that vaccinating women against HPV, which is transmitted mostly through sex, will make them promiscuous. It would also, in Luistro’s mind, encourage homosexuality as HPV is also transmitted through anal sex.

Luistro should be condemned not only for the Dengvaxia fiasco but for the many thousands of deaths in the next few years that could have been prevented if he had junked his moralistic ideas on sex and homosexuality, and allowed mass vaccination with the anti-HPV vaccines.

Deaths due to dengue are about 1,000 yearly; those due to cervical cancer are more than 2,000. Worse, of course, is that dengue is a usually self-limiting illness, and most of the time can be overcome with proper medical care for replacement of the body’s fluids. Cervical cancer on the other hand is mostly a death sentence.

This is the kind of Yellow cleric that Aquino had unleashed on the country.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Aquino’s Dengvaxia debacle: Criminal negligence or negligent crime?

WITH most of the details on President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s P3.5-billion mass injection program using the faulty Dengvaxia vaccine having been revealed in the two hearings in the Senate, we can only conclude either of two possibilities: that it was a stupendous case of criminal negligence or an execrably negligent crime.

Aquino claimed he had to act fast in the closing months of his presidency in order “to give a solution to the dengue problem,” of which Sanofi’s Dengvaxia appeared to be so. He added that he had made this move so that he could fulfill his promise to leave the country better off than before he became president.

If we believe Aquino, we have to conclude that his mass vaccination program was indubitably a case of criminal negligence of massive proportions.

How could Aquino have ordered P3 billion worth of a new vaccine untested for mass recipients—even breaking rules on bidding and the use of government funds without Congress’ approval—without asking other people, other experts other than his health secretary Janette Garin and the Sanofi people? For a P3.5 billion program that involved the departments of health, education and local governments, there wasn’t a single meeting of the Cabinet or of this cluster. (Didn’t his education secretary, Brother Luisito Armin, a member of the De la Salle Christian Brothers who had been president of De La Salle University, care about the children under his care enough to ask his university’s medical school about the safety of Dengvaxia?)

Rather than spending hours playing computer games, why didn’t Aquino simply google “Dengvaxia vaccine risks” in the period he ordered the purchase of 1 million doses of Dengvaxia in mid-December 2015 to the start of its injection in July 2016 to hundreds of thousands of Filipino childre?

If he had done so, he would have read the World Health Organization’s fact sheet posted in that period which categorically announced that Dengvaxia was not prequalified at that time (or to this day) by the WHO.

If he didn’t understand what he read, he could have easily googled “WHO prequalification.” He would have learned in seconds that a WHO-prequalified drug or vaccine means it meets standards of “quality, safety and efficacy.” If it isn’t “prequalified”, as is the case with Dengvaxia, then it may not be safe nor effective.

Aquino (right) and his budget secretary at the Senate hearing: Did he tell the truth?

If you were told that there’s this newly developed miracle drug that would make your child immune from pneumonia, but costs P50,000, wouldn’t you do some research and ask other people to find out if there’s no terrible side-effect to this medicine, or even check if the claims of its seller are true?

Wasn’t he curious enough that the Food and Drug Administration had not approved of Dengvaxia to be marketed in the country that he had to order it, through Garin, to do so in a rush?

Wasn’t Aquino curious that most of the members of the Philippine Formulary Executive Council – the body that approves what medicines and drugs the government can procure – didn’t want to give its imprimatur to Dengvaxia, and did so only after considerable pressure, and only for a one-year period and with six conditions? One of these was to undertake the vaccination in phases, and not en masse to 830,000 people as it had been done, so that the program can be undertaken under medical supervision and the vaccine’s effects be monitored closely.

Council warned
Why did Aquino go ahead with the mass-vaccination program when the council warned that Dengvaxia may have “unknown risks which could be better managed and contained in a phased implementation”?

Why didn’t Aquino even consult with his past health secretary Dr. Enrique Ona, one of his first appointees to his Cabinet, who had been studying what to do with the country’s dengue problem?

Or did he replace Ona with Garin in February 2015 after he concluded that the respected 77-year-oldld surgeon would be unlikely to collaborate with him in his Dengvaxia plot, in contrast to the 43-year-old Garin who was more of a politician (a three-term congresswoman) than a physician?

Aquino told the press last Friday that his Dengvaxia debacle was, to use Catholic Church terminology, only a “venial sin” since it was done in good faith.

But if we take him at his word, he would have to be charged and put in prison, as the Revised Penal Code stipulates severe penalties for reckless imprudence and criminal negligence.

In 2014, seven Quezon City officials were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Sandiganbayan for the Ozone Disco fire in 1996 that took 162 lives. They were found guilty of graft and corruption even if it was never proven that they received bribes from the owners of the disco for ignoring fire-safety laws. The court explained its decision: “The slapdash approval of the building permits and certificate of occupancy marked by a lackadaisical screening of the requirements… marks the officials’ evident bad faith and manifest partiality to the applicant.”

Slapdash approval
That kind of “slapdash approval” of permits, “lackadaisical screening of requirements”, and “manifest partiality” to Sanofi perfectly describes Aquino’s rush to purchase P3 billion worth of Dengvaxia, which is very likely to result in deaths due to severe dengue more than the 162 killed in the Ozone fire.

We will be shamed as a nation though if we believe Aquino, who obviously inherited his father’s gift of gab. This Dengvaxia disgrace isn’t a case of criminal negligence. It has all the markings of a negligent crime.

Aquino claims he just had to act fast to address the dengue problem. But why did he choose to act on this particular disease, to the extent he even violated laws on procurement and the use of government funds, when dengue wasn’t, and still isn’t, even a leading cause of death in the country?

Yearly deaths due to dengue have never been more than 1,200. This is a fraction, for instance, of the 53,000 deaths due to pneumonia, and the 24,000 caused by tuberculosis, for both of which long-proven effective vaccines are available .

Why did Aquino instead choose to buy vaccines for dengue for a mass vaccination program, and not for pneumonia and tuberculosis, which are by far the leading causes of deaths, especially of children, in the country? Is it because many companies are producing and selling the vaccines for these latter diseases, companies which could all bid to supply government, unlike dengue which only Sanofi sells?

The $70 million that Aquino used to buy the dengue vaccine could have bought 8,000 dialysis machines so that each town in the country could have one each, which would extend the lives of the poor with severe diabetes, which kills 30,000 yearly.

Aquino claimed nobody told him about the dangers of Dengvaxia. But if he could be briefed six times on the plans to capture Zulkifli Abd Hir aka Marwan before the ill-fated operation in Mamasapano in which he interrogated his police officials on their proposals, why didn’t he heave a single briefing on the Dengvaxia vaccination program?

FDA approval of Dengvaxia took barely a month, and just two weeks after he met with Sanofi executives in Paris. He ignored the Congress that allocates to the single peso how government funds are to be used, by allocating P3 billion for the purchase of the faulty vaccine, which wasn’t in the program of the health department for 2016 or 2017. Aquino undertook a P3.5-billion program (P3 billion for the vaccine, P500 million for the costs of administering it on a mass scale) in April 2016, when he was scheduled to step down from power in June 2016. He was rushing, and I don’t think it was in order to save the lives of Filipino children.

We would be pretending to be fools if we believe Aquino, just because the smoking gun of his crime—his receiving hundreds of millions to buy the Dengvaxia—has not been found. If it was indeed a crime, it was an extremely negligent one which ignored the risks to life and health of one million Filipino children.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Senate should probe why Sanofi got Zuellig for Dengvaxia sale

WHY did the Dengvaxia manufacturer Sanofi get Zuellig Pharma to be the broker for its P3 billion sale of the faulty vaccine to the health department?

Did the then health undersecretary Dr. Kenneth Hartigan-Go, who had pushed for the Dengvaxia-based mass vaccination program, have a role in Zuellig’s designation as Sanofi’s broker and distributor?

Did Hartigan-Go have a hotline to President Benigno Aquino 3rd who rushed to get his administration to undertake the Dengvaxia mass vaccination before he stepped down from office in June 2016?

These are three questions the Senate’s blue ribbon committee investigating the diabolical Dengvaxia debacle should investigate to determine who is accountable for what the former health secretary Enrique Ona termed as a “major health nightmare in the country today.”

I would call Zuellig Pharma as the broker since the purchase order dated March 10, 2016 of the Philippine Children’s Medical Center—the health department unit designated for the transaction—for the P3 billion worth of Dengvaxia was not to Sanofi but to Zuellig Pharma.

But there was no need for Zuellig Pharma’s services as broker. It was government, in fact President Benigno Aquino 3rd himself, who negotiated with Sanofi for the deal that boosted the French firms’ troubled finances for its Dengvaxia business. Health Secretary Janette Garin even claimed that Aquino had negotiated a lower price for the vaccine.

Zuellig has become a huge distributor of drugs in the country because of the extensive network of doctors, hospitals and clinics that it has built up over many decades. But there was no need for its network for the sale and distribution of Dengvaxia.

Corruption by whom? Health undersecretary Hartigan-Go (center) with his former boss health secretary Garin (seated). Right, protest against Dengvaxia.

It was the health department that received the Dengvaxia from Sanofi, with the vaccine administered by its doctors and nurses in its health centers in the National Capital Region, and Regions III and IV-A. It was the education department which organized the vaccination program through its public school system; it simply had the nurses and doctors administer the vaccine in the classrooms.

A roughly similar (but apparently more cautious) program that vaccinated 500,000 children in a small area on Parana state in Brazil last year didn’t have a private distributor.

Zuellig Pharma wouldn’t have brokered the sale for free, obviously. The Senate should summon its executives to disclose how much it earned in this deal, which of course is charged to us taxpayers.

Hartigan-Go in the January 2016 minutes of the Formulary Executive Council –the body that approves what drugs and vaccines government can purchase—appeared to be Health Secretary Garin’s pointman in the Dengvaxia vaccination program undertaking. Sen. Richard Gordon, the chair of the blue ribbon committee remarked the other day: “Ikaw (Go) ang isa sa mga nagtutulak nito, di ba?” (“You are among those who pushed for this [the Dengvaxia vaccination program], right?”)

Director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 2010 to 2014, Hartigan-Go is believed to have persuaded the FDA to approve Dengvaxia’s swift registration on December 22. That was the quickest approval to market any drug ever made by the FDA, since it received Sanofi’s complete application w\only on November 1. Hartigan-Go also attempted to persuade the Formulary Executive Council to allow government to purchase and use the Dengvaxia.

Significantly, it is solely Hartigan-Go who is on record as having disclosed that it was Aquino himself who had decided on undertaking the Dengvaxia vaccination program.

Minutes of the formulary council’s meeting of January 25, 2016 quoted Go as telling the body that the decision to fund and implement the Dengvaxia program was a “political decision,” already made by “a higher committee.”

One big reason why Gordon should grill Hartigan-Go is that he appears to have been close to Zuellig Pharma, which became the official distributor for the Dengvaxia vaccine which the health undersecretary pushed for. It’s difficult for me to believe that is just coincidence.

He was “founding Executive Director” of Zuellig Family Foundation from 2001 to 2009, and since December 2016, after government had vaccinated 830,000 children with Dengvaxia, has headed the Stephen Zuellig School of Development Management, a unit of the AIM funded by Zuellig.

While its foundations or an entity it finances are different from the company itself, still, there is no doubt that it is the firm’s owners that direct where its moneys are put.

A question that intrigues me: If Aquino made hundreds of millions through this Dengvaxia midnight deal, could these have been cleverly coursed as broker’s fees?

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Aquino may have condemned hundreds of thousands to severe dengue and Zika

FORMER President Aquino’s order to undertake a mass vaccination program using the faulty Dengvaxia vaccine just three months before he left office has put at risk some 830,000 Filipino children, to contract potentially severe dengue, and Zika fever as well, another mosquito-borne disease.

Dr. Scott Halstead, the leading figure in dengue research in the past 50 years and a former head of the US Army Medical Research and Development Command, had very sarcastically said of Sanofi’s Dengvaxia: “It’s happened. We have a vaccine that enhances dengue.” *

He was referring to microbiological studies that showed that those who hadn’t contracted dengue and who are then vaccinated with Dengvaxia were likely to suffer a more severe form of dengue if they should ever catch the virus.

Other researchers on the other hand had raised warnings that because of the genetic similarity of dengue with the Zika virus, Dengvaxia may also make such vaccinated persons prone to contracting the Zika disease.

While causing only mild symptoms, Zika could be transferred by a pregnant woman to her baby, resulting in brain malformations (such as abnormal smallness) and other birth defects. While Dengvaxia has been administered mostly to 830,000 fourth-grade children, any one of these children contracting Zika may infect adult women through certain types of mosquitos, not just the Aedes Aegypti that transmits dengue and Zika.

Aquino meeting with Sanofi execs December 2015, with Garin and Finance Secretary Purisima. Inset: Possible longterm consequences—more severe dengue illness and Zika that results in brain abnormalities.

Aquino’s horrendously faulty Dengvaxia mass vaccination therefore may have put at risk not only 830,000 Filipino children but, through Zika, a future generation of Filipinos who may have brain malformations and other birth defects.

All these warnings on Dengvaxia were issued by experts on the disease and by the World Health Organization in 2015 and in the early months of 2016. The health department’s pharmaceutical division and the National Formulary Executive Council that includes experts on specialized fields had advised in January 2016 against the mass vaccination using Dengvaxia. (Only on November 29 did Sanofi issue a warning that its Dengvaxia might indeed result in severe dengue if administered to those who had not contracted the disease before.)

Yet Aquino inexplicably directed the four major entities of his administration—the health, budget, education, and the interior and local governments—to order the Dengvaxia, fund the purchase from sources unauthorized by Congress, and vaccinate in three regions such a huge number of fourth graders in the closing months of his regime.

The mass vaccination program was so rushed that requirements set by the World Health Organization were not undertaken, among them: verification if a particular area targeted for the program had at least 50 percent exposure to the dengue disease (a requirement listed by the WHO); clear explanation to the parents and their consent; and a determination that a recipient of the vaccine had never contracted dengue and therefore shouldn’t be injected with the vaccine.

The program was so rushed that to this day, there is no complete database of children injected with Dengvaxia, making the health department’s work of monitoring their health nearly impossible.

I cannot think of any motivation for Aquino’s obsession to buy P3 billion worth of Dengvaxia from the French firm Sanofi so hurriedly if not for colossal financial gain.

Barely three months after he met with high-ranking Sanofi officials in Paris on December 2, 2015, the health department ordered the Dengvaxia in March. This was despite the fact that funds for this were not in the budget approved by Congress for 2015 and 2016, and was not even in the health department’s was not even in the health department’s programs for those years and even for 2017.

This was despite the fact that the health department’s own pharmaceutical department and the National Formulary Executive Council – the body that approves what drugs and vaccines the government may procure or use – had recommended against the mass vaccination program using Dengvaxia.

Minutes of the formulary council’s meeting of January 25, 2016 quoted Health Undersecretary Kenneth Hartigan-Go as telling the body that the decision to fund and implement the Dengvaxia program was a “political decision”, “ already made by a higher committee.”

Would I be wrong to believe that the decision was by the highest political authority in the land, Aquino, in order to procure a commission in the hundreds of millions of pesos?

This is not just a crime of corruption nor just of plunder. Considering that the health and even lives of 830,000 Filipino children have been put at risk, with future generations even facing the prospect of being born with brain defects, this is a crime against humanity.

*Type in your search engine field: “Contrary dengue vaccine response hints at possible problems with Zika”; “Dengue virus exposure may amplify Zika infection”; “Past dengue exposure may increase potency of Zika infection”.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Was Aquino’s P3.5B purchase of the dengue vaccine the worst case of corruption ever?

WAS there corruption on a massive scale, with former President Aquino 3rd earning hundreds of millions of pesos in dirty money from his administration’s purchase of Sanofi’s dengue vaccine Dengvaxia?

If indeed it was a case of corruption, it would be among the biggest ever for a single corrupt deal, as just 10 percent of the P3-billion cost of the one million dosages of the vaccine purchased—without any bidding and through secret negotiations—is P350 million. It could have been likely more, considering that Sanofi’s $70 million sale to the Aquino administration gave it the much needed financial and advertising boost for a vaccine it had developed at a cost of $1.8 billion, yet which it could sell only $20 million worth in two years of aggressive marketing.

But more than the magnitude of dirty money involved, this case of graft, if proven as such, would be the most abominable: The health and lives of 730,000 Filipino children were put at risk, just to rush the vaccine’s purchase before a new government would come to power.

Aquino with his health secretary Garin: Will she throw him under the bus to save her own skin?

President Duterte must leave no stone unturned to determine the answer to this question, if he is to be true to his promise to rid the country of corruption, and to get justice for 730,000 children.

 

He will be met by stiff resistance by the Yellow Cult, Already the most expensive campaign ever has been contracted and launched to use media for a massive cover-up of this ignominy. Just check the articles and opinion columns of the newspaper still in the Yellow Cult’s control.

I don’t think arriving at the truth will be so difficult: Aquino’s health secretary Janette Garin, who is from one of the most powerful political clans in Iloilo, would likely throw her former boss under the bus to save her own skin.

You, dear Reader, decide for yourself if Aquino got graft money or not from his dengue vaccination program. I will just narrate the facts.

Intense interest

First, it was Aquino himself who demonstrated intense interest in the Dengvaxia mass vaccination program, when he had hardly any interest in health issues in the past. He gave direct orders to Garin to undertake the program and buy the vaccines from Sanofi, despite appeals by the medical community to wait for the World Health Organization’s recommendation.

Aquino also had to order Budget Secretary Florencio Abad to find ways to fund the P3.5-billion cost of the vaccines, as this wasn’t covered in the 2015 or 2016 budgets set by Congress. I wrote this in my column last Wednesday, and neither Aquino nor Garin have denied this claim.

Second, Aquino was in an inexplicable extraordinary rush to purchase Sanofi’s Dengvaxia, quite obviously so the vaccination program could be undertaken before he stepped down from office on June 30.

Those familiar with the anatomy of corruption in any country would recognize such rush as a red flag pointing to graft. The rush is so totally inexplicable unless it was a graft project.

December 2, 2015: Aquino met with Sanofi officials in Paris—the second time he did so—and as the meeting adjourned, ordered Garin to rush the order to purchase the vaccines.

December 22: The Food and Drug Administration, headed by Garin approved the use of Sanofi’s Dengvaxia. It normally takes two years for the FDA to give its approval for new drugs, longer for risky vaccines since these are essentially weakened forms of the virus introduced to the body in the hope it will develop its own immunity.

December 29:The budget department’s authorization (SARO) for the purchase of the P3.5 billion vaccines was issued.

January 2016: Garin—who had replaced Enrique Ona as health secretary in January 2015—announces that the mass vaccination program would be undertaken starting in February.

March: The education department and the interior and local government department issued their memoranda on their personnel’s participation in the program.

April: The mass injection of 733,000 fourth-grade students with the Dengvaxia starts.

Never ever has such a major government program been undertaken in the span of just a few months.

So despicable

Aquino’s sprint for his administration to buy the Dengvaxia vaccine is so despicable considering that the UN’s World Health Organization in July 2015 had withheld recommendation on its use. It told the world that its Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on immunization was still evaluating the evidence and would only “likely” submit its findings on the use of the vaccine to the body in April 2016.

But for Aquino that obviously would be too late to purchase the vaccine, and the WHO had not really committed to the April date. Indeed, it was only in July 2016, that the WHO issued its recommendations based on the studies of the SAGE.

The WHO said Dengvaxia must be used only in areas where at least 50 percent of the population were infected with the dengue virus. It emphasized that it should not be injected into those who have not had the disease. If this was done, dengue would be more severe than it normally is, even leading to death, when the vaccinated person gets the disease.

Because of the dangers of Dengvaxia, only the Philippines in the entire world has undertaken a government-sponsored mass vaccination program using the drug.

There was no plague-like outbreak of dengue at the time (or ever), with the disease ranked as the ninth most prevalent disease in the country. The only urgency was perhaps the facct program would be undertaken in the campaign period towards the national elections in May, when everyone, especially media, would be distracted by the heat of the political contest.

But still, why couldn’t Aquino just wait for the WHO recommendations? For hundreds of millions of reasons?

Laws violated

Third, Aquino violated government laws and regulations when the health department purchased the P3.5 billion Sanofi vaccine, thereby risking being charged and imprisoned.

There wasn’t any public call to suppliers to submit their bids for the vaccine. It was a non-Sanofi firm Zuellig that was licensed to sell Dengvaxia in the country, although it isn’t clear if the French firm coursed the vaccine it sold to the government through this company.

The purchase of the vaccine wasn’t in the health department’s budget for 2015 nor in 2016, and was therefore unauthorized by Congress, the body which determines how taxpayers’ money may be used.

The funds were hijacked from the 2016 budget for “miscellaneous personnel benefit funds,” created for the compensation of newly hired government employees. But this is illegal, as the Supreme Court categorically ruled such fund-juggling unconstitutional in the case involving the Disbursement Acceleration Plan controversy.

Do you think Aquino would risk going to prison in order to protect Filipino children from dengue, using a vaccine which the WHO had not approved?

Shrouded in secrecy

Fourth, the P3.5 billion purchase was shrouded in secrecy, with the talks between government and Sanofi on the price for the vaccine never made public. This is another red flag for a purchase involving pay-offs to government officials.

The only report I have been able to find on this was a January 4, 2016  article in GMA News online that quoted Garin as saying that Aquino got a 34 percent discount when he met with an unidentified Sanofi executive in Paris.
Really? Or was Garin confused, that the 34 percent figure was actually the commission?

Sanofi reports in its website that it does not make public the Dengvaxia’s price, claiming that this is subject to negotiations with buyers. That of course gives so much flexibility for under-the-table pay-offs.

There are indications that the  Dengvaxia vaccine bought was probably overpriced.  The purchase order  for Dengvaxia was for 1,000,000 dosages at a cost of  P3 billion, which means P3,000 per dosage. The Brazilian government reported  that it bought its Dengvaxia at $37 per dosage, or P1,871.  An Indian company though has put out an advertisement that prices its Dengvaxia at the equivalent of P9 per dose.

Corruption

Fifth, Sanofi hasn’t been above corruption. A German court in 2013 convicted two former Sanofi staff of bribery and slapped the French drug-maker with a $39 million fine for making pay-offs to get more buyers for its drugs. The company’s officials were also alleged to have given pay-offs to doctors in China, Kenya and East African countries between 2007 to 2012.

Indeed, “big pharma” has had a reputation for corrupting local governments for its requirements that the renowned spy-thriller novelist John le Carré wrote a novel (The Constant Gardener, which was made into a 2005 movie) in which a drug company bribed Kenyan officials to test secretly its tuberculosis drug, called “Dypraxa,” on a village that got many of its residents killed. The Aquino health department agreed in 2011 to have 3,500 children become guinea pigs for Dengvaxia.

Was Aquino so desperate to make big money in the “last two minutes” of his regime that he risked the health and lives of 730,000 Filipino children? The only other explanation is that he was just utterly stupid, and that he was played by Sanofi.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns