Legality of PAO forensic laboratory questioned once again

MANILA, Philippines – The legality of the creation of the Public Attorney's Office (PAO) forensic laboratory is once again under scrutiny, this time by ex-health secretary turned Iloilo 1st District Representative Janette Garin.

On Wednesday, September 11, Garin had a fiery exchange with House committee on appropriations vice chairperson Ruwel Peter Gonzaga, who was sponsoring the proposed P21.75-billion budget of the Department of Justice (DOJ) for 2020. PAO, an attached agency of the DOJ, is proposing a budget of P4.22 billion.

Garin first asked Gonzaga about the mandate of PAO, then asked him to specify which provision of Republic Act (RA) No. 9406 – the law that created PAO – gives the office power to create a forensic laboratory. (READ: PAO lawyers accuse Acosta of using Dengvaxia cases to get 'extra funds')

"The Public Attorney's Office, I should say, has investigative power because it is an attached agency of the DOJ. Being a member, an attached agency of the DOJ, therefore it has the power to investigate, provided it has authority from the secretary of the DOJ," said Gonzaga. 

But Garin did not accept this, arguing that a government department's attached agencies do not necessarily have the same mandate. The Iloilo congresswoman then repeated her question.

"Point of order, Mr Speaker! My question is very simple: Please specify the specific provision that creates [the] PAO forensic laboratory. We don't need lectures here. We just need the honorable sponsor to please indicate the specific provision of the PAO law," said Garin.

Gonzaga then said RA No. 9406 "allows the PAO to take a case buildup."

Garin, however, continued grilling the sponsor of the DOJ budget. She repeatedly said the forensic laboratory is not under PAO's organizational structure. (READ: Guevarra leaves PAO forensic lab probe to Ombudsman)

In the end, Gonzaga conceded the PAO law is not explicit on the creation of the forensic laboratory.

"You are correct there, Mr Speaker. The expressed provisions of [RA No.] 9406 [do] not provide giving power to the PAO to conduct the laboratory forensic examination," said Gonzaga.

Garin and Gonzaga's heated exchange continued, with the two lawmakers speaking over each other several times. Garin did not let Gonzaga finish his sentences in several instances as well.

"Eh klaro naman po ang batas. Kongreso po ang gumawa ng batas. Eh ako po ay sasagutin ng mga sagot na hindi naman po totoo, ay Mr Speaker, distinguished sponsor, while I do respect you, I am constrained to call for the suspension of the deliberation for a few minutes," said a visibly irked Garin.

(The law is clear. Congress created the law. If I would keep on getting answers that aren't true, Mr Speaker, distinguished sponsor, while I do respect you, I am constrained to call for the suspension of the deliberation for a few minutes.)

To control the situation, House Assistant Majority Leader Alfred delos Santos moved to suspend the session for a few minutes.

Garin and Gonzaga were then seen in a huddle with House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez. After about 4 minutes, the session resumed, but the plenary deliberations on the DOJ's proposed budget were suspended.

The plenary then proceeded to deliberate on the proposed budget of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA). After the debates on the SBMA budget were terminated, lawmakers resumed deliberations on the DOJ budget.

Garin continued her interpellation of Gonzaga, claiming that PAO's forensic expert Erwin Erfe is not qualified for his job.

Gonzaga agreed, saying, "I would like the DOJ to reassess and reevaluate the qualifications of Erwin Erfe as forensics expert of the PAO."

Garin has an axe to grind against PAO and its chief Persida Acosta.

PAO filed several complaints against Garin and other Aquino administration officials over the implementation of the controversial dengue immunization program for grade school students in 3 regions in April 2016.

PAO's forensic investigations linked the deaths of several vaccinated children to the Dengvaxia dengue vaccine that was used in the controversial 2016 immunization program. (READ: PAO must be 'more professional' in gathering evidence – Diokno)

The Department of Health (DOH) has not yet confirmed whether Dengvaxia caused any of the deaths. The DOH, however, banned the vaccine in the country after the controversy erupted.

The Dengvaxia scare led to lower immunization rates and outbreaks of measles, a vaccine-preventable disease.

As of posting, plenary deliberations on the DOJ's proposed budget are still ongoing. – Rappler

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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