Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo (Source: Philippine Information Agency)

(UPDATED 6:35 p.m.) A commissioner of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) on Thursday asked the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to start a probe into what he claimed were “illegal solicitations” and other actions by Vice President Leni Robredo that supposedly “compete with” or “undermine” government relief efforts amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Robredo’s spokesman, lawyer Ibarra Gutierrez, immediately dismissed the statement of PACC Commissioner Manuelito Luna, calling it:

“So ridiculous, so inappropriate, so out of touch.”

“I had to verify if it was really true. I am deeply disappointed that it was.”

The vice president later tweeted a retort, with a GIF showing herself flipping her hair, asking if she needed to personally appear before the NBI or just attend via the Zoom virtual meeting app.

Luna, in a statement sent to reporters, said:

“The National Bureau of Investigation should investigate Vice-President Leni Robredo for illegal solicitations, actions that compete with, or calculated to undermine, national government efforts in this time of public health emergency or national calamity.”

He cited the Office of the Vice President’s free shuttle service and dormitories for health workers, and distribution of personal protective equipment for health workers, which he claimed could be “in violation” of the disaster risk reduction and management law and its implementing rules and regulations, the Solicitation Permit Law and related regulations, and measures and protocols of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emergent Infectious Diseases.

“Being a part of the national government, Robredo is barred from competing with the DOH (Department of Health), DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development) and OCD/NDRRMC (Office of Civil Defense/National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council), or undermining their efforts, and from soliciting donations, in cash or in kind, from the taxpaying public, especially since funds have already been appropriated or set aside for relief assistance, disaster mitigation, rehabilitation, etc.,” Luna said.

Luna, who used to be a lawyer for the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption that supported President Rodrigo Duterte in the 2016 election, was named to the PACC in 2018.

His recommendation to probe Robredo however exceeds the PACC’s jurisdiction as stated in Executive Order No. 43 that formed the body in 2017. Section 1 of the order states that PACC is to “directly assist the President in investigating and/or hearing administrative cases primarily involving graft and corruption against all presidential appointees.”

Section 5 defines presidential appointees as those with the rank of assistant regional director or an equivalent rank and higher.

In a separate message to reporters, Greco Belgica, another PACC commissioner, said Luna merely expressed his own opinion and his statement did “not reflect the sentiments of the commission.”

Belgica said the PACC was thankful to all those helping front liners and others in need, “including the VP.” He said:

“This is not the time for politicking.”

Gutierrez said that “Since Day One of the Covid-19 crisis, VP Leni has done all she can to help health workers, government institutions, and ordinary Filipinos overcome the challenges they have had to face due to the restrictions on travel, the shortages in supplies, and, of course, the ever present threat of infection.”

“She has mobilized private citizens to procure PPEs for doctors and nurses, organized free transport for those that needed to engage in essential travel, brought extraction kits to the RITM (Research Institute for Tropical Medicine), provided food to police and soldiers manning checkpoints, and set up dormitories so health workers have a place to rest near their hospitals,” he said.

“She has done all this without requesting additional public funds or seeking expanded powers. She did this because she saw a need, and she took action to meet it. She did this because it was the right and responsible thing to do,” he added.

Gutierrez said “[a]nyone who insists that bringing much needed assistance to hospitals, health workers, and poor Filipinos is somehow a “competition” has absolutely no understanding of the gravity of the crisis we are all facing.”

“Besides, is the largest crisis the world has faced since World War II really the best time to talk about investigations, particularly of people who have done nothing except do the best they can to help out? I leave it to the PACC, and the rest of national government leadership, to answer this question for themselves. In the meantime, rest assured, VP Leni will continue to do all she can to help,” he said.

Senators Franklin Drilon, Francis Pangilinan and Risa Hontiveros also defended Robredo in a joint statement:

“We are outraged by the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission’s plan to investigate Vice President Leni Robredo just because her efforts to extend assistance to Filipino families struggling to make both ends meet during this national crisis may embarrass the government.

When has helping people become a crime? Is it a crime to look for resources so that our health care workers are protected when they attend to the sick? Is it a crime to offer free shuttle vehicles so that our essential service providers in this unprecedented shutdown of business operations can get to work?

No one has the monopoly of helping alleviate the sufferings of our people. In this time of national crisis, we expect everyone to support all public and private initiatives in responding quickly and in staying to help until the curse of the coronavirus disease pandemic is finally defeated.”