House panels want charges vs Aquino, Abad, Garin over Dengvaxia mess

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Two House committees recommended the filing of criminal and administrative charges against former president Benigno Aquino III and his ex-Cabinet officials over the controversial Dengvaxia vaccine.

On Wednesday, February 6, the House committee on good government and public accountability as well as committee on health voted 14-0 to pass their joint report on the months-long investigation into the Dengvaxia controversy.

The lawmakers argued that Aquino, ex-budget chief Florencio Abad, ex-health secretary Janette Garin, and other former government officials had a "collusion…to ensure that a large quantity of Dengvaxia vaccines would be purchased by the government" for grade school students in Metro Manila, Central Luzon, and Calabarzon for the dengue vaccination program in April 2016.

The committee report states that Aquino, Abad, Garin, and the following officials may be held liable for graft:

"These officials may therefore be held liable for conspiring and confederating with one another for the purpose of 'giving any private party any unwarranted benefits, advantage or preference in the discharge of his official administrative or judicial functions through manifest partiality, evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence,' under Section 3(e) of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act," the lawmakers said.

Some 837,000 Filipino grade-schoolers had already been vaccinated under the immunization program before vaccine maker Sanofi Pasteur announced in November 2017 that Dengvaxia may lead a person to get severe dengue if he or she had not been infected by the virus before immunization.

Current Health Secretary Francisco Duque III immediately suspended the vaccination program and ordered heightened surveillance of all the vaccinated children.

Since then, Aquino and the former government officials have faced multiple complaints before the Department of Justice, Office of the Ombudsman, and the Commission on Elections. (READ: Aquino denies rush in Dengvaxia vaccination program)

The Gabriela Women's Party also filed a petition with the Supreme Court, asking it to compel the government to address the dangers posed by the controversial dengue vaccine.

The Public Attorney's Office has been claiming that Dengvaxia was responsible for the deaths of several vaccinated children. But the Department of Health (DOH) has yet to confirm whether the vaccine directly caused any of these reported deaths. (READ: Expert warns vs wild claims linked to Dengvaxia)

Since the Dengvaxia controversy broke out, however, immunization rates in the country have gone down and outbreaks of measles – a disease that can be prevented through vaccination – have been declared in several areas.

What else did the committee report say? The committee report also said the public officials and employees involved in the procurement of the vaccines and the implementation of the immunization program "failed to comply" with the standards set by the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

Lawmakers likewise recommended the filing of criminal cases against Aquino, Abad, Garin, and Lecciones for allegedly violating Article 220 of the Revised Penal Code, which involves the illegal use of public funds.

During the hearing on Wednesday, Nueva Ecija 1st District Representative Estrellita Suansing said Sanofi should also be held liable for the Dengvaxia controversy.

Deputy Speaker Raneo Abu moved to amend the report to reflect Suansing's manifestation. This means the committee report will be later modified to show the approved changes.

Who opposed the vote? Only 4 legislators said no.

They are Iloilo 1st District Representative Oscar Garin Jr, the husband of the former DOH chief Garin, Muntinlupa City Representative Rufino Biazon, as well as the allies of Aquino in the Liberal Party (LP): Dinagat Islands Representative Kaka Bag-ao, and Camarines Sur 3rd District Representative Gabriel Bordado Jr.

The LP legislators made a last-ditch effort to block the passage of the committee report.

Bordado and Bag-ao pointed out that an earlier version of the report prepared in April 2018 "exonerated" Aquino and Abad. Yet the new draft dated February 4 contained the same narrations but arrived at a different conclusion.

Bag-ao then cited different parts of the committee report where she argued the evidence cited were not substantiated enough.

House committee on good government and public accountability chairperson Xavier Jesus Romualdo, however, stood by the latest version of the report.

He said the loopholes cited by Bag-ao can be addressed simply by changes "subject to style" as well as the addition of the timeline of events in the Dengvaxia controversy. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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