COA unearths Duterte era laptop scam

By Beting Laygo Dolor, Editor

MANILA – It may not be as big as the Pharmally case where officials of the Duterte regime were found to have taken part in a multi-billion peso scam, but more officials of the previous administration may yet be charged for their part in a scandal involving  hundreds of millions of pesos spent for nearly useless laptops.

The brewing laptops for teachers scandal already has the Department of Education (DepEd) and the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM) pointing fingers at each other.

What has become clear is that the DepEd purchased outdated Celeron laptops at P58,300 each (about $1,060).

PCs and laptops powered by Intel Celeron processors are considered as of low quality and are among the cheapest in the market. Brand new laptops with the Celeron processors typically sell for between P15,000 ($278) and P20,000 ($364).

The Commission on Audit (COA) flagged the P2.4 billion ($43.636 million) purchase of laptops which auditors described as both “pricey” and “outdated.” The DepEd purchased almost 39,600 of the low-end laptops.

At the P58,300 price tag, the DepEd could have bought the MacBook Air with its advanced M1 chip, which sells for P57,990.

The questionable purchase took place in 2021 with the approved budget for each laptop set at only P35,046.50 ($701). The actual purchase was therefore overpriced by P23,253.50 ($423) per laptop.

The higher price tag meant that the Education department was only able to buy 39,583 units instead of the targeted 68,500, which were meant to be used by public school teachers.

The DepEd blamed the PS-DBM, as the latter was the “procuring entity.”

In a statement, the Education department said it would be “working closely with COA to ensure the continuous improvement of its services to the public.”

Some DepEd officials sought to justify the high price by saying that the purchase was not only for laptops but for the programs needed by the teachers to operate them. Further, they also said that the laptops were covered by an extended warranty.

DepEd spokesman Michael Poa said they needed more time to study the issue, which took place under the previous administration.

Said Poa: “This happened before our time so I do not have the answers on hand. Rest assured that we are looking into what issues really are with these laptops.”

For his part, PS-DBM Executive Director Dennis Santiago said  they would conduct a “thorough examination” of the cost of the laptops and the technical specifications procured for the DepEd during the term of President Rodrigo Duterte.

At that time, the DepEd was headed by Secretary Leonor Briones, who was 81 at the time of the purchase. Even her supporters have stated that her underlings may have been responsible for the apparent scam as Briones herself is considered a respected and honest academician, economist, and civil servant.

Alliance of Concerned Teachers Rep. France Castro filed a House Resolution to probe the laptop purchase, even as there was a growing clamor to disband the procurement service of the DBM.

According to Castro, “Teachers are especially hurt by this anomaly because while they even have to borrow money to buy a laptop for their classes, billions have been spent on this anomalous deal.”

The DepEd under the Duterte administration called for the purchase of laptops because teachers and students were not allowed face-to-face classes during the pandemic. All classes were held online.

The latest scandal brings to mind the Pharmally scam where the PS-DBM was found to have approved the purchase of billions of pesos in pandemic supplies from a little known company with no facility to manufacture the goods.

A Senate Blue Ribbon probe found that other government officials and presidential advisers took part in the deal, but the final report of the panel was never passed because some senators refused to sign it because it also implicated Duterte.