The head of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, Sen. Francis Tolentino, said the purchase of much expensive but outdated laptops worth P2.4 billion for the use of public school teachers in their online classes during the pandemic did not go through the proper channels.
At the start of the hearing yesterday, Tolentino observed irregularities in the approval as it did not go through “the higher-ups.”
He said the procurement was approved only by Education Undersecretary Alain Pascua and Director Abram Abanil, a member of the PS-DBM Special Bids and Awards Committee.
Pascua, however, said he was not a signatory to the documents pertaining to the pricing of the laptops.
“I did not say I was the one who confirmed or concurred with the document. I did not say that… My name is not in those documents,” he said.
Senator Ronald dela Rosa pressed Pascua as to why did they agree to the P58,300 price tag for each laptop recommended by the Procurement Service-Department of Budget.
The DepEd had suggested paying only P35,046.50 per laptop.
“Why did you allow PS-DBM to increase the price? It’s very clear in the records that you allowed this, from P35,000 to P58,000. May I know the reason why?” Dela Rosa asked.
Pascua, however, said that it was the Information and Communications Technology Service, not the DepEd, who approved the price.
Pascua explained the pricing issue was no longer elevated to the higher-ups since Abanil, the director of the ICTS, has already agreed with the pricing.
Dela Rosa noted that the number of supposed beneficiaries was at the same time cut from 68,500 teachers to 39,583.
On further questioning by Dela Rosa and the other senators, Pascua admitted agreeing to the “action slip” from the PS-DBM indicating that the quantity of the laptops would be lowered due to the higher cost.
Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, who also confronted Pascua, said agreeing to lower number of laptops was tantamount to approving the higher price.
Pascua said ICT director Abanil was the one who signed the concurrence on that action slip, in which there was an option to purchase fewer laptops.
“It is imperative for the DepEd and the DBM-PS to explain the basis for the change in the unit price (from P35,046.50 to P58,300.00) and the number of laptop units (from 68,500 to 39,583) to be procured by the DBM-PS,” insisted Cayetano.
Senator Aquilino Pimentel III who was among those who filed a resolution to investigate the alleged overpricing in the purchase of laptops, also echoed the same concerns raised by Cayetano.
Pimentel said the COA Report concluded that the DepEd settled and agreed to the price and technical specifications of an entry-level type laptop provided by the DBM-PS. It found that the adjustments made on the procurement resulted in pricey computer laptops with a low-end processor.
He also cited the decrease in the number of intended beneficiaries of the laptops.
Pimentel demanded an explanation from the DepEd for its approval and acceptance of these laptops, which were not in accordance with its budget and its original technical specifications to the detriment of our public school teachers and their students.
“We must remember that competitive public bidding aims to protect the public interest by giving the public the best possible advantages through open competition. It is a mechanism that enables the government agency to avoid or preclude anomalies in the execution of public contracts,” he sald.
The senator also grilled DepEd and DBM officials to determine if they followed procurement law and rules.
But no senators contradicted the assertion of former DepEd secretary Leonor Briones that no violation was committed when they endorsed the P2.4 billion fund to buy laptops to the PS-DBM.
The laptops were intended to be used by teachers in their online classes during the pandemic.
Facing the first Blue Ribbon Committee hearing on the alleged overpriced and outdated laptops,
Briones stressed they assigned the procurement of laptops to the PS-DBM as DepEd no longer had the time and the capacity to look into the details of the various products.
Briones told the committee that the P2.4 billion, which they used for the purchase of laptops, actually came from the P4 billion afforded to DepEd by Congress under the Bayanihan 2.
The P2.4 billion was actually intended for the senior high.
But since it was a lockdown when the P4 billion Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) was released December 2020, and they only had until June 2021 to spend the money, Brilones said they opted to use it to buy laptops.
Congress passed the Bayanihan 2 (Bayanihan to Recover as One Act so that, among others, the laptops could be given to the teachers within three months.
During that time, Briones also said DepEd had yet to create a bidding committee.
Still, Cayetano and the other senators raised suspicions on why DepEd officials agreed to a much higher cost for the laptops.
While it was the DBM that conducted the bidding and the procurement, Cayetano said it was the DepEd that received the laptops without duly questioning the price and specifications of the units.
Senator Risa Hontiveros described the PS-DBM a breeding ground of inefficiency, negligence, and corruption.
She said the agency had a whopping P6.5 billion worth of irregularities in 2021 alone, and a history of dubious transactions.
“What has been uncovered so far is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
“The fact that this spans multiple agencies is a huge red flag. So many government programs are affected by this, and during a pandemic year at that,” the senator added.
She called for the abolition of the PS-DBM.
“Abolishing it is urgent, but that is just a band-aid solution if we end the story there. More importantly, I want every peso explained and accounted for, and every official held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” she said.
Former PS-DBM OIC Lloyd Christopher Lao, attended the hearing virtually.
Tolentino informed the panel that Lao sent his office a letter asking for a clearance that he is no longer facing any contempt charges. He said Lao also sought his removal from the immigration lookout bulletin.
However, Tolentino said the BRC members have yet to decide on Lao’s request.
Lao further asked the committee to allow him to leave early, saying he was no longer the PS-DBM executive director when the DepEd laptops were procured.