Guevarra leaves PAO forensic lab probe to Ombudsman

MANILA, Philippines –  Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said on Thursday, August 15, that he will leave it to the Office of the Ombudsman to look into the legality of the creation of the Public Attorney's Office (PAO) forensics laboratory.

Guevarra made the statement when asked about the legality of the creation of the forensics lab – the subject of a months-old complaint that got a boost after a group of PAO lawyers filed this month a manifestation before the Ombudsman to supplement the complaint. (READ: PAO lawyers accuse Acosta of using Dengvaxia cases to get 'extra funds')

"I cannot comment because I don't know what really happened and I think she has submitted her counter-affidavit and other controverting evidence so we will leave it to the Ombudsman, to Justice (Samuel) Martires to resolve that asap," Guevarra told reporters on Thursday.

In October 2018, lawyer Wilfredo Garrido Jr filed a complaint before the Ombudsman questioning the legality of the creation of the PAO forensic lab. He pointed out that Republic Act No. 9406 or the law that created PAO, did not provide for it.

PAO's forensic expert is Erwin Erfe who, of late, led the investigations into deaths that PAO linked to the use of dengue vaccine Dengvaxia.  

In his complaint, Garrido called the forensic lab "a patently illegal office because there is no such office described in the Administrative Code, or specially created by Congress, with funds appropriated therefor."

On Thursday, Garrido acknowledged the  significance of the PAO lawyers' letter to the Ombudsman against Acosta and Erfe.

"This is now bigger than my case. My complaint has been pending for almost a year, and it just got a boost – from within PAO, of all places," Garrido said in a statement on Thursday.

Forensic lab

Guevarra said on Thursday that he does not see the need for a separate DOJ probe for now, even if he would have to defend PAO's proposed 2020 budget before Congress starting next week.

Guevarra said that Acosta had assured him the creation of the forensic lab was with the approval of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

"Namention niya in passing that for her, that was a mere harassment suit na 'yung creation of the office ng forensic ay with the approval of the DBM (She mentioned in passing that for her, that was a mere harassment suit, that the creation of the forensic office is with the approval of the DBM)," he told reporters.

Garrido told Rappler that Acosta used the same DBM defense in her counter-affidavit submitted to the Ombudsman, a copy of which was furnished to him as the complainant.

"That is not a viable defense because under the administrative code, only an act of legislation can create an office," said Garrido. 

He said that after he sent his response, he no longer received an update from the Office of the Ombudsman. 

Garrido's complaint and the lawyers' manifestation both requested the Ombudsman to place Acosta and Erfe under preventive suspension pending investigation of the complaints against them. 

"If the Ombudsman cannot act on my request for preventive suspension, which has been pending for months, the President can fire her," said Garrido. 

PAO budget

Guevarra said the proposed 2020 budget for PAO was incorporated into the DOJ budget that had been submitted to Congress.

"Budget for the PAO has already been submitted to the DOJ and we have forwarded the entire DOJ budget including attached agencies to the DBM so I am sure that the people of the DOJ have already factored that in," he said.

Acosta did not respond to Rappler's request for other details such as when the forensic lab was created and how many staff it had. The forensic lab is not under the PAO's organizational structure which lists all lawyers and staff.

On its website, PAO has a separate tab for forensics which lists only Erfe.

PAO's 2019 budget is P4.125 billion, the 2nd highest budget in the DOJ family next to DOJ proper at P7.9 billion. The Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) is 3rd with P4.099 billion.

In 2018, PAO had a P3.197-billion budget, which increased by 29.04% or by P928.495 million in 2019 budget. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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