MANILA, Philippines—Malacañang confirmed on Saturday there have been talks between President Benigno Aquino III and Sen. Panfilo Lacson about a watchdog body to combat oil smuggling that the former national police chief might lead.
Speaking on state-run radio, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said Mr. Aquino had taken a more aggressive role in fighting oil smuggling following reports of rampant fuel smuggling under the watch of Commissioner Rozzano Rufino Biazon at the Bureau of Customs.
A series of reports published by the INQUIRER said the government loses P30 billion to P40 billion in tax revenue every year due to the smuggling of petroleum products into the country through major ports and special economic zones.
Former Sen. Jamby Madrigal on Friday proposed the establishment of an agency to combat oil smuggling and suggested that it be headed by Lacson, former chief of the Philippine National Police.
Valte said President Aquino and Lacson had begun talks, but she did not have information about the discussions.
Valte did not say whether Lacson was being considered as head of a new agency for fighting oil smugglers or as a replacement for Biazon at the customs bureau, but a top Palace official said Thursday that Mr. Aquino would deal with Biazon after the elections in May.
“Wait after the elections for Cabinet movements,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to journalists.
Administration bets’ chances
The official acknowledged, however, that left undealt with, the smuggling problem could affect the chances of the administration’s candidates making a sweep of the senatorial election next month.
“Perhaps that’s the pressure that the (Liberal Party) has to address too,” the official said.
Lacson, whose term in the Senate ends in June, has “in principle” accepted a job offered by the President. But he does not see the necessity of setting up a new agency to help the customs bureau fight oil smuggling.
Such an agency “might be unwieldy,” he told the Inquirer in a text message.
Biazon, he said, knows his job but he needs to be protected from politicians who use their influence to get their people appointed to the customs bureau.
Lacson said Biazon and the head of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, Kim Henares, had the competence to deal with oil smuggling.
“They only need to be insulated from the self-serving interests of abusive politicians who meddle in their day-to-day operations and, worse, even in the assignment of key personnel in the Bureau of Customs,” Lacson said.
Lacson said earlier that cracking down on smuggling should be quite easy.
“It is not rocket science actually. It starts with an efficient collation of data and records of inventory, sales importation and tax payments, which are all available anyway, then make accountable all personnel who have been remiss in their duties regardless of oversight, inefficiency or deliberateness,” he said.
Sen. Francis Escudero, an independent reelectionist running on President Aquino’s senatorial ticket, earlier urged top-down changes in the Bureau of Customs because of the agency’s failure to check smuggling, not only of petroleum products but also of steel.
‘Putting out fires’
Escudero said the only explanation for continued smuggling was the collusion of insiders at the customs bureau.
In an interview in Davao City last month, President Aquino said he would make “minor changes” in the Cabinet after the elections on May 13.
He said Lacson’s role would be as a troubleshooter for him.
“Initially, it will be like a fireman putting out fires. So he will not have a specific agency that he’ll report to,” Mr. Aquino said.
“But when there is a particular group that needs my undivided attention, he will be the one providing that undivided attention. But we still have to work on details (of his assignment),” he said.