The Department of Justice (DoJ) has been placed in 2020 as the spearhead in the government’s anti-corruption campaign amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Department of Justice (DoJ)

With the billions of pesos that have to be spent in the government’s response to the pandemic despite the lack of funds, there has been closer scrutiny in spending.

This has resulted to the realization of widespread corruption in government.

Because of this, an angry President Duterte issued an Oct. 27 memorandum addressed to DoJ Secretary Menardo Guevarra who has been “directed to investigate allegations of corruption in the entire government” and “shall remain in effect until noon of 30 June 2022, until lifted or revoked.”

“In pursuit of this directive, the DoJ shall have the authority to decide which allegations to investigate, taking into consideration the gravity thereof and their impact on the delivery of government services. It may create as many panels as it deems necessary and adequate, and may invite or direct other bodies and agencies of the government to assist or be part of such panel,” Duterte said in the memorandum.

 “The DoJ shall prosecute and  file appropriate charges against all those involved in the anomalies investigated, whether against government or private persons, as may be warranted by the evidence gathered, subject to applicable laws and rules,” he added.

Calling it the Task Force Against Corruption, Guevarra managed to get the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), the Office of the Special Assistant to the President (OSAP), the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC), the National Prosecution Service (NPS), the DoJ Office of Cybercrime (OOC), and the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) as members.

The Justice Secretary was also able to secure the cooperation of the independent constitutional bodies, the Office of the Ombudsman (OMB), the Commission on Audit (CoA), and the Civil Service Commission (CSC), in conducting the corruption investigation.
The TFAC has received a total of 98 complaints and reports of corruption in various government agencies as of Dec. 2.

Guevarra said the TFAC will hopefully be able to file its initial corruption complaints before the OMB very soon based on investigations it conducted.

PhilHealth probe

The President’s decision to have the DoJ lead an anti-corruption task force resulted from the department’s investigation of anomalies at the Philippine Health Corp. (PhilHealth).

Prior the creation of the TFAC, Duterte issued an Aug. 7 memorandum to Guevarra “to organize a panel for the conduct of an investigation on the various allegations of corruption and anomalies in the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), including the audit of the PhilHealth finances and conduct of lifestyle checks of its officials and employees.”

Calling it Task Force PhilHealth, it is composed of the same member-agencies of the TFAC and also tapped the cooperation of the OMB, CoA, and CSC.

Among the officials who stepped down from the State health insurer, retired Army Brig. Gen. Ricardo Morales handed to Malacanang on Aug. 26 his resignation from his post as PhilHealth chief executive officer and president.

Morales was replaced by retired NBI Director Dante Gierran, a Certified Public Accountant and lawyer, whose appointment by Duterte was hailed to boost corruption investigation at the PhilHealth.

Pursuant to the President’s directive to finish the investigation in 30 days, Task Force PhilHealth submitted to Malacanang last Sept. 14 a report on the corruption probe and recommended the filing of graft charges against Morales and seven other PhilHealth executives – Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Amel de Jesus; Senior Vice President Jovita Aragona, Chief Information Officer and head of the Information Management Sector; Senior Vice President  Renato Limsiaco Jr.; Senior Vice President Israel Francis Pargas of the Health Financial Policy Sector; Officer-in-Charge Calixto Gabuya Jr.; and Division Chief Bobby Crisostomo.

It also recommended the filing of additional complaints against Morales for violating provisions of the National Internal Revenue Code as well as for malversation of public funds or property and illegal use of public funds or property in violation of the Revised Penal Code (RPC).

‘Pastillas’ probe

The Bureau of Immigration (BI), an agency under the DoJ, has been in the TFAC’s primary list of government agencies to be investigated for corruption.

Guevarra has ordered the NBI to investigate the involvement of its immigration officers in the “pastillas” money-making scheme which has allegedly raked in P40 billion in bribes over the years as early as February.

Under the scheme, bribes wrapped in paper to look like the pastillas sweet are given to immigration officers in exchange for facilitating the entry of  Chinese nationals who have been blamed for bringing in COVID-19 into the Philippines.

Following the conduct of an investigation, the NBI filed before the OMB last Sept. 1 a criminal complaint against 19 BI officers and personnel over their alleged involvement in the pastillas scam.

Guevarra later ordered the BI to have those named in the complaint reshuffled to prevent them from participating in the “pastillas” scheme.

The NBI filed more complaints before the OMB on Nov. 3 against 86 persons linked to the pastillas scam, including its alleged ring leader, former BI Port Operations Division chief Marc Red Marinas.

Despite being tasked to investigate the “pastillas” scheme, the NBI was not spared of involvement in corruption.

Agents of the NBI Special Action Unit (NBI-SAU) arrested during an entrapment operation NBI legal section chief Joshua Paul Capiral and his brother, BI officer Christopher John Capiral, inside the NBI headquarters in Manila last Sept. 21.

The NBI operation was conducted based on the complaint of BI officer Jeffrey Dale Salamde Ignacio, who is one of the 19 respondents in the Sept. 1 pastillas complaint, over allegations that the brothers asked him P200,000 so that no more charges could be filed against him concerning his alleged involvement in the corrupt activity.

Pandemic response

During the year, the DoJ has implemented a number of measures as part of efforts in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the government imposed a lockdown on March, 17, Prosecutor General Benedicto Malcontento allowed since March 27 government prosecutors nationwide to conduct online inquests or e-inquest which no longer required law enforcement authorities to personally present arrested persons.

This complemented the move of the Supreme Court (SC) that allowed courts to conduct videoconferencing hearings of cases and the online filing of charges and other court documents.

Rise of online offenses due to pandemic

During the pandemic, the DoJ discovered that there has been an alarming rise of fake news, scams, and sexual exploitation children online.

As the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus brought with it an “infodemic,” the DoJ chief issued public warnings as early as January against the spread of fake news online concerning the virus.

Subsequently, Guevarra issued Department Order No. 052 dated Feb. 4 which directed the NBI “to conduct an investigation and case build-up on alleged deliberate spread of misinformation and fake news about the 2019-nCoV ARD (COVID-19) and false reporting of 2019-nCoV ARD cases and, if evidence warrants, to file appropriate charges against persons responsible therefor.”

As the pandemic forced the public to stay at home and do more online transactions, criminals also went to the Internet and took advantage of those seeking online services.

Cases of killings

COVID-19 was not the only thing reaping individuals in 2020 as the DoJ has to deal with numerous cases of killings.

Among these is the killing of retired Army Corporal Winston Ragos who was shot by a policeman near a checkpoint in Quezon City on April 21.

Refuting the police claims that Ragos, who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia, was armed when he allegedly violated quarantine rules at that time, the NBI on June 4 filed murder, perjury, and planting of evidence complaints against the shooter, Police Master Sgt. Daniel Florendo, before the Quezon City Prosecutor’s Office.

Already troubled with COVID-19 infections and deaths, two riots broke out at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muintinlupa City on Nov. 9 and Oct. 9 which resulted in the deaths of four and nine inmates, respectively.

One of the inmates killed in the Nov. 9 riot was convicted Chinese drug financier Calvin Tan and this has prompted suspicions that he might be the intended target during the incident.

Guevarra also had the NBI investigate the deaths of four Army intelligence officers who were killed by policemen in Jolo, Sulu last June 29.

Following the conduct of an investigation, the NBI filed on July 29 a criminal complaint against 11 policemen over their involvement in the deaths of the Army officers.

There have been 10 lawyers killed this year, including for Batangas Rep. Edgar Mendoza, retired Court of Appeals (CA) Justice Normandie Pizarro, Manila Judge Ma. Theresa, Abadilla, BuCor legal division chief Frederic Santos, and Manila chief inquest prosecutor Jovencio Senado.

Source: Manila Bulletin (