By Pia Garcia, June 27, 2022; CNN Philippines

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 27) — One of President Rodrigo Duterte’s biggest campaign promises was to rid government of corruption, a problem that seemed to be entrenched in the political and bureaucratic system.

“I will not promise you heaven but I will try to stop corruption,” Duterte said when he ran in the 2016 elections.

When he became the 16th President of the Republic, Duterte followed on his campaign pledge and promised to free the country of the endemic problem. He set a six-month deadline to accomplish the goal, similar to the timeframe he allotted for his anti-drug drive.

Many presidents had been elected on a strong, anti-corruption stand before, but this time Filipinos were hopeful Duterte — a tough-talking mayor from Davao City — would deliver on his word.

But aside from calling out erring government workers during his late-night briefings, what has happened since 2016?

The “pastillas” problem

A bribery scheme dubbed the “pastillas” scam at the country’s premier gateways was unwrapped in 2020 and was a major test for Duterte.

It involved officials from the Bureau of Immigration, who allowed foreign travelers to enter the country without background checks for a fee. The grease money would be rolled up in pieces of white paper, making them resemble the local sweets.

At a hearing, a witness claimed about 90% of immigration officials were in on the modus. Dozens of immigration officials were suspended or axed as a result.

Earlier this month, at least 40 people were indicted because of the scam. Most of them were immigration officers, including former Immigration deputy commissioner Marc Red Mariñas, who was previously tagged as the mastermind of the scheme.

Corruption amid a health crisis

As the country grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Duterte administration also had to deal with corruption allegations in its handling of the health crisis.

Former officials of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation were accused of pocketing billions of pesos, as alleged by an anti-fraud legal officer of PhilHealth.

Duterte himself reacted to the issue, saying he would get rid of those proven to be involved in the supposed scam.

“Itong PhilHealth, sabi ko yayariin ko kayo, maniwala kayo. Iyong mga inosente naman, wala kayong dapat i-ano, tahimik lang kayo at continue working,” Duterte said.

[Translation: This PhilHealth, I will go after you all, believe me. Those who are innocent have nothing to worry about, just stay silent and continue working.]

However, PhilHealth itself denied the allegations, saying all the money was accounted for. It said it was received by over 700 health care facilities as part of the country’s COVID-19 response.

Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. also put the administration’s anti-corruption stand in question after the firm was accused of involvement in an allegedly anomalous multibillion-peso deal regarding the purchase of medical supplies for the government’s pandemic response.

Two officials of the company were thrown in jail after being cited for contempt for failing to submit documents requested by the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, which was conducting a probe into the issue.

Mohit Dargani and Linconn Ong were eventually released from the Pasay City Jail after the Senate adjourned in the last session day of the 18th Congress.

In an interview on The Source, Senator Koko Pimentel said the Pharmally issue may be taken again under the 19th Congress.

And while the Senate was conducting its inquiry into the matter, Duterte warned he would “extract” officials detained at the upper house because of the corruption probe, saying there would be “trouble in government” if it was allowed to continue.

Duterte takes on COA

In 2021, Duterte slammed the Commission on Audit and accused its officials of corruption. He dared them to publish the list of cases filed against its General Auditing Office. Duterte’s rant came after the agency published reports of mismanagement of funds by government offices.

However, COA auditors also questioned their own colleagues in their 2021 report over ₱12.3 million in unliquidated cash advances for foreign and local travel.

In the first few months during his weekly addresses, Duterte would read out names of officials accused of corrupt practices and the allegations made against them. He said he refrained from doing so after realizing how it negatively affected their families.

“Ngayon, wala na [I don’t do it anymore]. I have stopped it. But this is not saying we cannot reimpose it again,” he said.

In his last State of the Nation Address, he said he would not give up on “reaching” corrupt officials, adding that his office has “demonstrated careful stewardship of the power by initiating reforms” to provide the best service to benefit the Filipino people.