BY VICTOR REYES and RAYMOND AFRICA
ARMED Forces chief Gen. Gilbert Gapay yesterday called off a military investigation on the Presidential Security Group which inoculated its members with a COVID-19 vaccine that has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The investigation, which was supposed to start yesterday, was canceled after President Duterte on Monday night invoked executive privilege and ordered PSG commander Brig. Gen. Jesus Durante III to ignore any summons from the Senate which is set to open its hearing next week on the use of unregistered COVID-19 vaccines.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said there is no need to summon the PSG.
He said the President was apparently made to believe that the hearing of the Senate Committee of the Whole (SCOW) hearing on Monday will center on the inoculation of the PSG members. He said the hearing is meant to determine how the government plans to purchase, stock, and distribute COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved for emergency use.
“He is misinformed. I’m the chairman of the Committee of the Whole as Senate President. The topic of my hearing is the road map for the P72.5 billion for vaccines. Who in heaven’s name told him I’m calling for the PSG? I think the President is being misled,” Sotto said.
“Pinapatawag ko ba? Last time I heard ako chairman. Bakit iniiba ang topic ng hearing ko which is the roadmap of the P72.5B for vaccines? (Did I summon them [PSG men]? Last time I heard I am [SCOW] chairman. Why are they trying to change the topic of my hearing which is the road map of the P72.5-billion for vaccines?),” he added.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said Malacañang should not meddle in congressional investigations because Congress has oversight functions.
Sen. Richard Gordon said while the PSG inoculation is not on the agenda of Monday’s hearing, he will ask Sotto for a caucus to determine if the Blue Ribbon committee which he chairs, can push through with the probe on the PSG vaccination issue.
He said the PSG men cannot refuse to attend once summoned since it is under the oversight functions of the Senate to invite resource persons.
At the House, the Makabayan bloc filed resolution urging the House committees on health and on good government to investigate the illegal vaccination of PSG members.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the National Bureau of Investigation will continue its probe on unregistered COVID-19 vaccines
“The NBI investigation will proceed as planned. Its mission is to investigate the alleged proliferation of unregistered anti-COVID 19 vaccines and their unauthorized administration in the so-called black market. The agency has several sources of information other than the Presidential Security Group,” Guevarra said.
FDA Director General Eric Domingo said he believes an investigation on the use of unauthorized COVID-19 vaccines in inoculating PSG members is still necessary.
“It is important to determine who and how are they able to enter the country so that we can already prevent it,” said Domingo.
He said this is because, aside from the PSG incident, there have been persistent rumors and reports of unauthorized immunization incidents happening in other parts of the country.
“We have conducted several inspections after getting reports of COVID-19 vaccines being illegally sold in the market. This is what we want to identify,” said Domingo.
Gapay stopped the probe, that was supposed to be conducted by the AFP Inspector General, after President Duterte told Congress on Monday night not to “tinker” with the PSG, adding the decision to inoculate themselves was “a matter self-preservation.”
Duterte said that if the PSG personnel will be called to Congress to testify, he will ask the PSG to “shut up,” not to answer questions and invoke right against self-incrimination.
Duterte announced soldiers have been vaccinated with COVID-19 vaccine Sinopharm last month. Durante later admitted his men received the vaccines in September and justified it “to ensure that they are not themselves threat to the President’s health and safety.”
Durante declined to say where the PSG got the vaccines though Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana implied they were smuggled because the FDA has yet to approve any vaccine for use in the country.
EXERCISE IN FUTILITY
AFP spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo in a statement said Gapay called-off the probe “in the light of the recent pronouncement of the Commander-in-Chief and President Rodrigo Duterte.”
Told the President’s statement was directed at Congress, Arevalo said, “We should be able to read in between the lines.”
Arevalo noted the President is against the investigation of the PSG.
“We, as we are under the executive department, should be able to understand that’s the, as we call it in the military, commander’s intent,” said Arevalo.
“We need not wait to be directly informed by our commander-in-chief of the AFP because the commander-in-chief is higher than the Chief of Staff. If that is what the President said, then we need not be informed the PSG will not attend (the probe),” he said.
Arevalo said it will just be an exercise in futility if the military will proceed with the investigation without the cooperation of the PSG.
“If we will conduct the investigation and the PSG will not attend or will be silent by invoking their right against self-incrimination, the investigation will not be able to obtain anything from the investigation, so its going to be like an exercise in futility, the conduct of the investigation,” Arevalo said.
Gapay had ordered the probe to determine the circumstances or the facts surrounding how the vaccine was procured and how it was administered to the PSG personnel. Arevalo said the probe was supposed to be conducted as part of the AFP’s review of its policies, techniques, tactics and procedures.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, in a briefing, said Durante flew to Manila from Davao City on Monday night with some Cabinet members, to attend the Armed Forces investigation, which was canceled yesterday.
He also said different bodies conducting investigations like the National Bureau of Investigations and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are free to continue and the PSG to cooperate with them.
“The President invokes executive privilege which is in the Constitution in prohibiting iyong PSG po, in appearing sa Senado. Pero marami pa pong imbestigasyon diyan – NBI, FDA, AFP… Iyong mga hearings ng ehekutibo can continue and of course we expect the PSG to appear and cooperate (The President invoked executive privilege which is in the Constitution in prohibiting the PSG, in appearing in the Senate. There are a lot of investigations there– NBI, FDA, AFP…the hearings of the executive offices can continue and of course we expect the PSG to appear and cooperate),” he said.
Asked why Duterte is treating the Senate differently, Roque said “the concept of executive privilege arises from separation of power and the fact that the President must be allowed to make correct, even if unpopular decisions.”
The President on Monday night said he is advising the PSG to “just shut up” and “not answer” the Senate inquiries. He said the PSG members have the right to invoke their right against self-incrimination.
He also warned the Senate against forcing PSG members to testify and said he would order the arrest of those who would place his security team in contempt and arrest them.
“I would like to call on Congress na, hindi naman ako nakikiusap, ang ano ko lang, diretso na salita na do not tinker with the PSG. I’m telling you as President it’s a matter of self-preservation. So hanggang diyan na lang ako. I will not elaborate on it but do not force my hand to meddle into this affair because maybe I will not — I am not so keen about allowing Durante and the rest of the PSG to testify (I would like to call on Congress, I won’t request, but I will tell you directly do not tinker with the PSG. I’m telling you as President it’s a matter of self-preservation. I will stop there. I will not elaborate on it but do not force my hand to meddle into this affair because maybe I will not — I am not so keen about allowing Durante and the rest of the PSG to testify),” he added.
Durante said the close-in security of the President in the PSG had been vaccinated against COVID-19 in September 2019 as part of efforts to protect the President. The Food and Drug Administration, however, has not approved any COVID-19 vaccine.
The President said the PSG opted to take the risk of using an unregistered vaccine to fulfil their mandate of protecting him. He said the PSG members are forced to mingle in crowds whenever they visit some areas and could not observe social distancing.
“I am prepared to defend my soldiers. I will not allow them, for all of their good intentions, to be brutalized in hearings,” said Duterte who said he had no knowledge about the inoculation and brand used by the PSG.
He said he is not covering up anything.
The President previously said many soldiers have received the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm even without approval from the FDA.
Roque said Duterte learned of the vaccination of the PSG only after it was done. He said the President still has no knowledge as to where the vaccine came from.
The President also warned of a constitutional crisis between the executive and legislative branches if Congress insists on looking at the inoculation of the PSG men.
The President’s statement did not sit well with Lacson.
“Ibabalik natin sa Malacanang yung panghihimasok na issue. Hindi na dapat manghimasok yung Malacanang sa tungkulin ng Senado o ng Kongreso na kung kami ay may pagdinig, uubra na kami ay magpatawag ng resource persons… (We will also ask Malacanang about that meddling issue. Malacanang should not interfere with the functions of the Senate or the House, that if we have a hearing, we can invite resource persons,” he said.
Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon said a Senate inquiry into the vaccination of PSG men is important after reports said that around 100,000 workers of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators have also been inoculated against COVID-19.
He said investigation will further strengthen the functions of the Food and Drugs Administration and the Bureau of Customs.
He said that as Duterte invokes executive privilege to prevent the PSG from appearing before Congress, the order should not stop Congress from performing its constitutionality mandated duty to conduct investigations.
Gordon, on the President’s order to the PSG, said, “I was quite disturbed but no longer surprised.”
“We don’t want to tinker with the President either, but as far as national matters are concerned, I standby the independence of Congress. No one can overwhelm the other and put it to submission… The only shield we have is a fair and square investigation. He should not fear that, he is a lawyer,” Gordon added. – With Jocelyn Montemayor, Wendell Vigilia, Gerard Naval and Ashzel Hachero