A day after President Aquino admonished the Bureau of Customs (BOC) in his State of the Nation Address (Sona), Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon said a major revamp would be implemented in the bureau soon.
“The coming revamp in the BOC shall cover all levels and this will not be influenced by politicians and other power blocs,” Biazon said as he warned all bureau officials and employees to heed the President’s call for reforms in the agency.
He said the President’s warning to BOC personnel engaged in smuggling should send a strong message for them to shape up or resign.
In his fourth Sona at the opening of the 16th Congress, Aquino singled out personnel of the BOC, Bureau of Immigration and the National Irrigation Administration for their incompetence, saying they had no place in government.
“Where do these people get the gall?” he asked, referring to BOC officials and employees who abetted the smuggling of goods, drugs and arms, among other items, into the country’s ports.
Aquino warned that such practices had no place in government. “If you can’t do your job, you do not deserve to remain in office,” he said.
Biazon immediately offered his resignation to the President after his speech, but he said Aquino assured him of his continued confidence in him.
Responding to Biazon’s offer to quit his post, Aquino said in a text message: “Ruffy, we both know the difficulties in the agency you are trying to reform. My confidence in you remains the same.”
Biazon said he faced a moral dilemma. “Do I continue to fight for what I believe in, which is reforming the bureau, or do I simply give up? But the President said he has confidence [in me] so I take it as a continuation of the marching order he gave me when he appointed me,” he told reporters.
Biazon said he did not offer an irrevocable resignation because he was considering the efforts that he had already made to reform the bureau.
Asked to comment about some people’s impression that he was being kapit tuko (clinging to his office), Biazon said: “I offered my resignation after Sona. Is that kapit tuko?”
He said he would take the President’s continued confidence in him as his inspiration to pursue his vision of a reformed BOC, even as he explained that there were other factors that may influence his stay in the bureau.
Without shedding a tear
“(A)side from the President’s trust and confidence, of course, I have to consider the decision of my family and my close friends.” Biazon said.
“But I will not hesitate to resign—without shedding a tear—anytime once I feel I have lost the President’s trust. I will fight for what I believe is right and in pursuit of protecting the government’s interest,” he added.
In the House of Representatives, his father, Muntinlupa Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, said that if the harsh words that Aquino delivered during his address were directed at his son, then the President would have accepted the customs chief’s resignation.
The elder Biazon said the President’s scathing criticism of the BOC gave his son a free hand in changing the way things were done in the agency.
But for the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), Aquino was sending mixed signals in rejecting Ruffy Biazon’s resignation.
“Ruffy Biazon did the right thing by immediately offering to resign. We commend him for showing delicadeza. But the response of the President was puzzling, especially if you consider the harsh words and the serious warning he issued against the BOC,” UNA secretary general and Navotas Rep. Toby Tiangco said in a statement.
Tiangco said the President’s message against corruption was heard clearly, but was muddled by his decision to keep the younger Biazon. He said the speech did not “walk the talk.”
“Instead, the fight against corruption may be well seen as a lukewarm battle. The forgiving treatment and justification given by exonerating those at the helm of the Bureau of Customs are demoralizing and have a negative impact,” he said.
Biazon said he would not contest the President’s Sona but said he would later submit reports of the actual accomplishments with regard to the issues raised in his speech.
On the President’s claim that more than P200 billion in revenue was slipping through our borders without going into public coffers, Biazon said the BOC and the Department of Finance would reconcile their records.
He, however, explained that free-trade agreements the country had entered into were part of the reason for the BOC’s collection shortfall.
“In 2012, for instance, the BOC’s collection shortfall was placed at over P60 billion. However, the estimated foregone revenue for that year due to free-trade agreements was placed at over P62 billion,” Biazon said.
The BOC is the second-biggest revenue earner for the national government after the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
BOC to miss target
Biazon acknowledged that the bureau was likely to miss its revenue collection target for 2013.
He said weaker-than-expected merchandise imports were a drag on revenue collection.
Believing that imports would not significantly recover in the coming months, Biazon said the BOC’s revenue collection target may no longer be attainable.
For 2013, the BOC is tasked with collecting P340 billion in import taxes and duties. The target was lower than the original P397 billion set earlier in the year. Despite the reduction, the BOC thinks the new target is still difficult to achieve given the substantial drop in imports.
“Considering the slowdown of imports, we are not positive on meeting the target,” Biazon told reporters.
He said, however, that the BOC may still register an increase in revenue collection from the P289 billion recorded in 2012.
Besides anemic imports, Biazon acknowledged that the continuing culture of corruption in the BOC and among private firms that transacted business with the agency was to blame for its discouraging performance.
In a radio interview, the former Muntinlupa City legislator pointed to the “connivance between corrupt government officials and corrupt businessmen” for smuggling at the major ports.
Earlier in a text message, he told the Inquirer “those who continue to engage in illegal activities in connivance with smugglers will be targeted and will face the full force of the law.”—With a report from Jerry E. Esplanada