MANILA, Philippines—The idea of abolishing the Bureau of Customs was merely a “suggestion” from Customs Commissioner Rozzano Rufino Biazon and part of his “initial” discussions with President Aquino, Malacañang said Saturday.
Two Palace officials made this clarification on the heels of Biazon’s pronouncement that the Aquino administration was considering abolishing the graft-ridden bureau, possibly replacing it with a professional institution run by private officials and employees.
Biazon said he had discussed with the President this idea as part of a top-down cleansing at the BOC that would end smuggling and corruption in the agency once and for all.
“One concept done by other countries is a complete overhaul [of their customs departments] through abolition. We might have to do that,” Biazon said at discussion with Inquirer editors and reporters on Thursday night.
“It’s just one of many ideas being discussed to improve collections. The fact that it’s being discussed at all shows you how serious we are taking the need to improve collections, not necessarily the idea of abolition,” said Strategic Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang in a text message to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Palace spokeswoman Abigail Valte said as much in a radio interview.
“From what I understand from Commissioner Biazon, that was one of his suggestions. But allow us to say that these discussions were initial and were just one of the many possibilities that are being discussed on how to improve Customs performance,” said Valte.
Valte also responded to Biazon’s claim of an alleged demolition job against him following calls for his resignation over massive smuggling of petroleum and agricultural products under his watch.
“The Commissioner was being asked to respond to allegations, and he just answered. It doesn’t mean that he’s not doing his job while he’s also responding to questions raised by the members of the media,” said Valte.
Asked whether Biazon was just looking for a graceful exit in making this suggestion, Valte said, “Well, again, it’s just one of the many possibilities that are being explored and are being looked into to be able to improve Customs performance.”
According to Valte, privatizing the BOC was part of wide-ranging discussions over proposals to address smuggling in the country, and “does not mean that that will be the plan. Again, these were initial discussions and just yet one of the options that were being discussed in our effort to find ways to improve Customs performance.”
But she disagreed with a phoned in question from a reporter that Biazon’s proposal was an “implied admission” that the bureau was already a “hopeless case.”
“We have a lot of other options being looked into. And again, if you look at any system and you want to improve it, you look at the different ways that is possible to do that,” she said.
Valte said that Biazon still had the confidence of the President when she was asked if the commissioner was on his way out.
“The President has not said anything yet on losing confidence… in Commissioner Biazon,” she said.
Valte, however, begged off from discussing the ramifications of the Attrition Law, which either rewards or punishes BOC employees or officials who fail to meet their revenue targets.
“I would like to look at the law first itself, particularly, in the case of BOC. Because sometimes … there are circumstances that would lead to the easing out of a particular official, and what are the exemptions,” she said, adding:
Biazon has proposed scrapping the entire customs bureau ostensibly to get rid of all the corrupt officials and employees in the agency.
He cited the example of Peru, which, to defeat corruption and smuggling, abolished its custom department, put up a new one, adopted strict qualifications for hiring, and paid higher salaries to the new officers and employees running the new agency.
Biazon himself admitted that corruption was a deeply-entrenched malaise at Customs, so firing a few people or catching some smugglers would not solve the problem.
“Customs reform is not just about chopping off heads. The guys down there in the front lines are the ones who have the power to perpetuate these things (corruption),” Biazon said.