Duterte can't bar Michael Yang, Christopher Lao from attending Senate probe -- Sotto

The executive department has no authority to prohibit private individuals from attending the Senate's investigation on the alleged anomalies in the government's procurement of COVID-19 supplies, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said on Wednesday, September 15.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III (Senate PRIB)

In an interview with ABS-CBN's Teleradyo, Sotto noted that President Duterte can only bar incumbent officials within his Cabinet and not his former appointees.

"Ang maganda lang dito sa nangyayaring ngayon, hindi naman pwedeng pigilan ng executive department 'yong mga hindi government officials. Ang pwede lang pigilan 'yong mga Cabinet officials (The only good thing from what is happening today is that the executive department cannot stop non-government officials. Only Cabinet officials are covered by the prohibition),” Sotto said.

“Si Michael Yang hindi naman Gabinete 'yon...si Linconn Ong, at saka itong si Christopher Lao. Hindi na siya gobyerno, nag-resign siya eh (Michael Yang is no longer part of the Cabinet, Linconn Ong, and also Christopher Lao. Lao is no longer part of the government since he already resigned)," he added.

Yang, a Davao City-based Chinese businessman, was Duterte's former presidential economic adviser, and has been linked to the Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corporation, a foreign firm which bagged over P8 billion in deals from the government for the purchase of COVID-19 supplies and equipment for the Department of Health (DOH).

Yang was ordered arrested before deciding to show up in the Senate Blue Ribbon's hearing last September 10, but again skipping the succeeding hearing after his health was supposedly affected by the proceedings.

Ong, meanwhile, is one of Pharmally's executives, who, like Yang, was cited for contempt and was under arrest for giving senators vague answers on the former presidential adviser's involvement in their purchases.

Senators would later find out that Yang financed some of Pharmally's purchases.

Lao, meanwhile, was a former undersecretary who led the Department of Budget and Management's Procurement Service (DBM-PS). Senators have accused him of failing to exercise due diligence in selecting the contractors for the procurement of COVID-19 supplies, and favoring Pharmally over local manufacturers -- a claim he denied.

"Nasa power ngayon ng Senado yong either subpoena o warrant o arrest sila (Now, it is within the powers of the Senate to subpoena or issue an arrest warrant against them)," Sotto said.

The Senate chief reminded anew the executive department of the separation of powers between the branches of government, and that the Senate, having been given the "power of the purse" by the Constitution, has the oversight authority over the use of public funds.

Sotto said the executive department can opt to "block or unblock" the Senate's legislative inquiry on the issue.

"Pwedeng ma-unblock para tuluyang nang makita kung anong nangyari sa pera ng taumbayan. Yon naman ang target ng Senado (They unblock and let us so we can see what really happened to the people's money. That is really the goal of the Senate)," he said.

Duterte has been criticizing senators for looking into the reported deficiencies of the DOH in spending its funds for COVID-19 response, as flagged by state auditors. Senators were not daunted by the President's remarks, vowing to continue with their probe in aid of legislation.