MANILA • Philippine senators began a public inquiry yesterday into a US$300 million (S$394 million) purchase of two navy frigates, to determine whether President Rodrigo Duterte's aide had interfered in the procurement process.
The inquiry was prompted by media reports that carried a leaked document with an annotation that links the President's longtime special assistant Christopher "Bong" Go to the process of procuring a combat management system for the frigates that will be built by South Korea's Hyundai Heavy Industries.
The hearing called by the Senate committee on national defence and security is looking to establish whether or not Mr Go had gone beyond his remit by getting involved in a defence contract. He has not been accused of corruption.
Mr Go denies any wrongdoing and read a statement critical of the media, calling it "fake news". He said he was simply passing on to the defence department a "complaint" the President's office had received.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper and news site Rappler last month carried leaked copies of a White Paper originating from the President's office and asking the navy to look at a proposal by a South Korean subcontractor, Hanwha Land Systems, to supply the weapons system.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has confirmed he added an annotation to that document telling the navy chief to look at the proposal, and that the document had been given to him by Mr Go. But Mr Lorenzana told the inquiry yesterday that he could not be certain who gave it to him.
Hanwha Land Systems in South Korea did not immediately respond to a request for comment and was not represented at the hearing.
Ms Sandra Han, a representative for Hyundai Heavy Industries, attended the hearing but was not asked about whether Mr Go was involved or not. A Hyundai Heavy Industries communications official could not immediately be reached for comment.
Mr Go said his office had merely endorsed what he said was a complaint from Hanwha. He did not specify what the complaint was about.
He said the frigate controversy was "seriously derailing" the implementation of an important security programme and was cooked-up by the administration's opponents.
Mr Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque said the contract, which was negotiated during the administration of the President's predecessor, Benigno Aquino, underwent scrutiny by the defence department under the Duterte administration.
"We implemented, we followed the law, but it was not this administration which chose the supplier," Mr Roque said ahead of the hearing.
But Senator Antonio Trillanes, one of Mr Duterte's staunchest critics, believed Mr Go would not do anything without Mr Duterte's order.
"If it is established that he was involved, then it is not because Bong Go had an interest in it, but rather Duterte had an interest in it," the Philippine Star newspaper quoted Mr Trillanes as saying.
Vice-Admiral Ronald Joseph Mercado was sacked as navy chief last December for insisting the ships be installed with combat systems made by a Dutch company. He told the hearing he had at no point spoken to Mr Go about the weapons system.