MANILA, Philippines — Charges have been prepared against former officials of the Quezon City Persons with Disabilities Affairs Office (PDAO) linked to the irregular release of six PWD cards to a family, although the House panel on persons with disabilities continues to assert that the six cards of the family are not fakes.
Philstar.com learned from sources over the weekend that former QC PDAO focal person Arnold de Guzman and his former staff member, Louie Pagayon, are facing charges of grave misconduct, serious dishonesty, gross neglect of duty, falsification of official documents, and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service.
The Chong family was criticized on social media earlier this year after photos of six PWD cards belonging to members of the family — five of them for alleged visual disability — circulated online.
The photos sparked discussion on people getting persons-with-disability cards for the benefits and despite not being qualified for them — an issue that advocates say has long been known within the disability community in the Philippines — and have put the family at risk of facing charges.
Despite these developments, sources said the Quezon City local government has not revoked the family’s cards, citing the need for due process and in contrary to the claims of incumbent QC PDAO officer-in-charge Renato Cada that the cards had already been revoked.
The sources, however, were careful to point out that the family’s cards were issued during the past city administration.
“What needs to happen here is cases should be filed. If the PWD affairs office is involved, if the Chong family and the doctor faked the documents or manipulated and undermined the system, [then] a recommendation of filing for case can be pursued, which I will support,” Rep. Mike Defensor (Anakalusugan Party-list) said at a recent House meeting.
The Chong family skipped the congressional hearing of the Special Committee on Persons with Disabilities on Tuesday, November 18—the second meeting that they have missed—and instead sent lawyer Jose Raulito Paras to appear on their behalf.
As a result, Rep. Maria Lourdes Arroyo (Negros Occidental, 5th District), who heads the House panel, issued a subpoena for the family and directed Paras and his clients to attend the next meeting upon Defensor’s motion under pain of contempt.
A source also confirmed that the QC PDAO and the city legal affairs office were also “awaiting subpoena from Congress.”
“Formal charges have already been drafted as warranted, but investigation is still ongoing as we also await for relevant facts that may emerge during the congressional hearings,” Quezon City legal officer Niño Casimiro, a lawyer, said in a text message.
Comment from February 2020 shows the same family’s cards.
To begin the meeting, Defensor pointed out that since the House probe was in aid of legislation, the family’s lawyer and legal counsel could not represent the family under the House’s rules and could only give guidance.
“First of all, if the family you are representing is really not guilty and there are no problems, this is their chance to officially explain and clarify the issue…Nobody will judge them and this is where we listen to them,” Defensor said in a mix of Filipino and English.
“Their avoidance is, in effect, disrespect of the committee and disrespect of the House of Representatives. The family should be the ones here and should be the ones answering the questions and interpellation…this is a serious matter [and] we are now in Zoom, and it’s so easy for the family to be part of our discussions this morning and the investigation that we are conducting,” he also said, adding that the family could also be held in contempt.
Section 13 of the Rules of procedure governing inquiries in aid of legislation of the House of Representatives reads:
“The participation of counsel for the witness during the hearing and while the witness is testifying shall be limited to advising on the legal rights of said witness.”
“I was expecting them to appear in today’s meeting,” Arroyo said.
Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte has disclosed that the six cards of the family had not been supported by any documents. The QC local government also confirmed earlier that their releases were “facilitated” by city employees.
‘Kayang kaya nilang lumaban’: Cards not revoked yet
Paras, at the hearing, however, said that the matter could still be resolved by “securing the records from the QC PDAO as to the supporting medical certificate.”
Representatives of the Quezon City PDAO were also not present at the latest hearing. At the previous hearing in early September, QC PDAO officer-in-charge Renato Cada said the office found that the cards were not issued by authorized city representatives and that and no medical certificates or abstracts on the supposed disabilities of the family members were presented to the office.
In a phone call with Philstar.com, Cada said that the family appealed to keep their cards and that the appeal is still under process. He was careful to point out that any revoking or cases would be on the city legal to decide, and that the PDAO could not revoke IDs “without basis.”
“The Chongs are pushing the legitimacy of their cards, and that’s separate from the case against the government employees. That’s also their right to be given due process,” he said in Filipino.
“So in as much as the city wants to settle it, there’s really a lot of legal implications there considering itong mga ito talagang, kayang kaya nilang lumaban (this family, they can really fight).”
Cada also affirmed that there were no supporting documents behind the cards. He disclosed that the same person from the previous city administration had signed the releases for the family’s cards.
Screengrab shows a copy of the Chong family’s affidavit submitted to the House special committee on persons with disability.
‘Relentless bashing and bullying’
In a July letter addressed to the House panel and that acknowledged the invitation sent to them months ago, the family asked to be spared from physically appearing at the hearings, citing their mental health—which was also the claim one daughter used in acquiring a PWD card.
Family matriarch Carolyn Chong added in the letter that one of the children even received a death threat.
“My children and I were bullied, bashed, and battered on social media…The relentless bashing and bullying caused us so much pain, anguish, and anxiety,” Chong wrote in the letter, a copy of which was acquired by Philstar.com.
“For these reasons, I most respectfully plead that we be spared from personally appearing at the hearing to avoid exacerbating our trauma due to unreasonable bashing we have been receiving. I also fear of the negative effects these may have on the emotional and mental well-being of my children.”
“We therefore most respectfully request our family lawyer be allowed to speak on our behalf on the meeting scheduled.”
In its letter, the family also claimed that the issue started because of an incident at a restaurant where the family’s cards were photographed without their consent after they were refused discounts for a take-out meal.
Posts on PWD groups also show that other establishments have already had issues with the family’s cards in the past, with one user posting a different photograph of the same cards as early as February 2020.
Attached to the family’s affidavit was a screenshot of a Viber message that read: “My staff didn’t honor the discount since not one of them are physically present. They got mad and threatened my staff.”
But the affidavit itself reads: “The restaurant told me that we had to be physically present…I no longer insisted on using the PWD cards. I then instructed my driver to pay to pick up my orders and pay the full amount of the bill.”
A source familiar with the incident contradicts the Chongs’ story, telling Philstar.com in a phone call that the family got the names of the employees involved and threatened to bring the case to authorities if the establishment did not grant them discounts.
The photographs that went viral were part of an incident report filed with the restaurant’s management that claimed the employees were intimidated by family, the source said, adding that the pictures were taken and shared to a private group of restaurant owners under the instruction of Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez to take photos of suspected fakes.
According to the source, it was not the mother who spoke to the restaurant during the transaction, but one of the daughters.
The family’s medical booklets attached to the affidavit submitted to the House panel, copies of which were acquired by Philstar.com, do little to corroborate their assertions.
Although the elder Chong asserts that the family has “visual issues to varying extents,” listed in the booklet submitted by one daughter for her “visual disability” are medications for skin itchiness, sleeping problems, dry eyes, stomach cramps, throat infections, along with vitamin C and antibacterial medicine for skin infections.
Another child with a listed “visual disability” made use of their PWD discount to purchase acne and allergy medication.
“[We were] diagnosed by an in-house eye doctor of an optical shop located in a major mall [who] checked our eyes and issued each of us a medical certificate. Unfortunately, I cannot recall anymore the identity of the doctor,” Chong said in her affidavit, though no certificates from this mall eye doctor were attached to the affidavit, where she also admitted that none of the children were present when she applied for the cards.
At the House special committee’s hearing, representatives from the Department of Health contended that astigmatism does not qualify a person to own a PWD card and the benefits that came out.
“We have a criteria for saying that a person is a person with a disability with vision [ailments] as the basis, but astigmatism is not part of it,” DOH representative Priscilla Cuevas reiterated, highlighting that according to the DOH’s assessment, visual problems are only classified as impairment if problems in visual functioning persist even after treatment or correction.
Such an impairment would also have to be “on the verge” of being legally blind to qualify, she said.
The Philippine Registry For Persons with Disability offers this definition in its updated application form on the Department of Health’s official website:
“A person with visual disability (Impairment) is one who has impairment of visual functioning even after treatment and/or standard refractive correction, and has visual acuity in the better eye of less than 6/18 for low vision and 3/60 for blind, or a visual field of less than 10 degrees from the point of fixation. A certain level of visual impairment is defined as legal blindness. One is legally blind when your best corrected central visual acuity in your better eye is 6/60 on worse or your side vision is 20 degrees or less in the better eye.”
Astigmatism does not cause blindness, and many people have astigmatism and other conditions that are corrected with the use of glasses or contact lenses.
Three of Chong’s children did not submit medical booklets, while only one of them had documented purchases of medicinal products related to their listed “psychosocial disability.”
Despite this, Rep. Arroyo asserted that it is too early to tell if the cards issued to the Chong family are fakes.
“Personally I believe that they are real PWD cards, but whoever issued them, and the doctors [are at fault],” Arroyo, a PWD herself, said.
“We have to fix what needs to be fixed, and the Chong family can help us shed light on the process of acquiring these PWD IDs,” she added.
Philstar.com reached out to Arroyo for comment on the discrepancies but she has not responded as of this post.
“We assure this committee that our PWD cards are authentic and genuine. These cards were duly issued by the Quezon City PWD Office after the submission of the proper application forms and the required supporting documents,” the letter submitted by the Chong family read.
“We never abused the use of our PWD cards. We have never used the PWD cards to cut into queues or to use a parking slot allotted for PWDs. I believe that there are people who are less mobile who should avail of these parking slots. My children and I only use the PWD cards within the parameters of the law,” she also said in her affidavit.
Not fair to legitimate PWDs
“It’s in fact unfair to the genuine and legitimate PWDs with ailments…if this situation continues, it’s them (legitimate PWDs) who suffer because everyone will cast doubt on the PWD cards of those with real needs,” Defensor added at the hearing.
“If you have a card, establishments should already know that there is a disability involved, and there should be no question as to the integrity of the card…but what happens with all these fakes coming out, the PWD assistance program is sabotaged,” he said.
In an email exchange, lawyer Vic Dimagiba, president of consumer group Laban Konsyumer, Inc. told Philstar.com that government officials “should act promptly” on the issue, which has dragged on for almost a year.
He added that the case of the Chong family “should not impede” calls for guidelines for online discounts for both PWDs and senior citizens, which the consumer NGO had earlier pushed for in a statement, citing the relief this would bring both sectors amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“That’s not fair to legitimate PWDs. There can be a handful (of fakes), and [we should] get stats on cases filed vs. fake PWDs,” Dimagiba said.
“(National Council for Disability Affairs) or (Department of Social Welfare and Development) should have filed the complaint. Are cases filed by now? That should be a huge deterrent for fakes. Legit PWDs should enjoy the benefits in electronic commerce,” he added.
Dimagiba noted that the case could be endorsed to the Anti-Red Tape Authority “against NCDA and DSWD and the LGU PWD office.”
In an earlier Philstar.com story, PWD Philippines sent a proposal to the Palace communications team calling for a privatized and functioning PWD database, saying it would alleviate the doubts surrounding the ID’s integrity.
“Because of the problems with the integrity of the PWD ID, many vendors have become wary of honoring their discounts, all because of a few fake IDs that have come into circulation,” the proposition reads.
“The ID is meant to give PWDs some kind of reprieve from the heavy and punishing rigors of social indifference and ignorance, while also the government’s way of giving them some extra benefit to assist with their already burgeoning medical bills therapy costs,” it also says.
Discounts for online purchases?
Asked about calls to grant PWDs and senior citizens discounts for online transactions amid the coronavirus pandemic, DSWD secretary Rolando Bautista, in a virtual briefing, said the agency had already partnered with the Department of Trade and Industry to craft a policy that will check the rules for online purchasing for the two sectors.
In response, Bautista pointed to the existing laws outlining benefits for the two sectors, including the Expanded Senior Citizens Act of 2010 and the Magna Carta for Persons with Disability. “Senior citizens and PWDs are entitled to these benefits as vulnerable sectors,” he said.
“I want to remind our agencies to continue coordinating with the concerned offices, including the National Council on Disability Affairs and the National Commission of Senior Citizens and other implementing agencies,” he added.
In the aftermath of the PWD card controversy, the department also reminded the public in a statement that “falsification of public documents and the use of falsified documents are criminal offenses and are punishable under the Revised Penal Code.”
Disclosure: Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte is a shareholder of Philstar Global Corp., which operates digital news outlet Philstar.com. This article was produced following editorial guidelines.