‘Even if I stand alone’: Duterte says he’ll stand by Duque amid COA findings

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed readiness to stand by embattled Health Secretary Francisco Duque III even if it erodes his popularity and insisted that firing him would be a “great injustice.”

Duterte dared critics to give him a reason why he should fire Duque, whose agency has been criticized for the alleged “deficiencies” in the handling of more than P67 billion COVID-19 response funds.

“Do you want me to fire him (Duque)? Give me a reason why I should fire him. I hired the guy. He was not applying for the post. He did not ask me to hire him… If he commits a mistake, I would be responsible for that. But from what I saw, you are to oust him, for what? What wrongdoing did he commit?” the president said during a pre-recorded public address aired Saturday.

“So, I’m sorry but I said even if I stand alone, I will stand for Duque even if it will bring me down. They said after this, Duterte will no longer be popular, his ratings will go down. Look, I am done. The rating does not really matter to me. I just want to work and whatever judgment you have for me, I don’t give a s***,” he added.

Duterte said a person’s reputation is important and that Duque would be branded as corrupt for life if he is removed from his post.

“I would be doing a great injustice. You know why? I hired him and he is performing. If I ask Duque to leave, during his lifetime, people would say ‘You know, he was fired because of corruption.’ You just imagine the injustice that you inflict on another fellow human being. I am not like that,” Duterte said.

“Attack those who are truly corrupt. Go ahead. Go for his neck. He deserves it. But here (issues involving Duque), there’s really nothing,” he added.

Duterte also clarified that Duque was not his campaigner when he was still seeking the presidency in 2016.

In its annual report for the health department, the Commission on Audit cited what it called “deficiencies in the handling of pandemic response funds, including the alleged failure to obligate and disburse billions of pesos at yearend.

The return of the funds to the national treasure was “counter-beneficial” to initiatives to contain the pandemic, according to state auditors.

Last Monday, Duterte assailed COA for releasing initial findings that he said create impressions that agencies and officials have committed corruption.

He ordered agencies not to follow COA’s findings, saying no one has been jailed because of its reports. The president also revealed that Duque had tried to quit twice but his resignation was not accepted.

Malacañang has downplayed the COA report, saying initial observations and comments can be debunked or addressed by agencies. COA has clarified that its report did not mention that state funds have been lost to corruption.

Duterte said the release of COA’s findings should not distract officials in the performance of their duties.

“Government should not be affected or swayed by the noise of the few… We should perform our sworn duties to the people including transparency and accountability.

If you think that these events surrounding the other reports on various agencies under the executive department will distract us from our mission to save our people, then you are wrong,” the president said.

“I am committed to leading our nation out of this pandemic with the help of our frontline institutions so that we can be victorious and ready for a bigger future,” he added.

Duterte reiterated that agencies should be given elbow room as they try to address the effects of the pandemic.

“To be honest, at the start of the pandemic – if you know what the word is, it’s a worldwide contamination.

My order to DOH (Department of Health) is if you buy something, dispense with the bidding. That was my order then. They did not even follow it. They still conducted biddings,” he added.

The president also asked COA to “reconfigure” its reports by stating that there is no corruption if state funds remain unused.  

“I know there is no malice. You are just doing your duty. But in making the report, kindly reconfigure everything and say, at the first instance, if you conduct interviews, state immediately, ‘There is no corruption here because there is no money involved.’ The money has not been utilized,” Duterte said.

“Even if Duque wanted to spend all of that in one day, he has no sufficient personnel… So what can he do? He has to make do with the manpower of his office,” he added.

Reporting by Albert Rovic Tan

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