Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon on Friday directed all collectors, including Ricardo Belmonte, the younger brother of House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, and officers in charge of ports and subports in the country to vacate their posts preparatory to reassignment in the first round of a wide-ranging reform in the Bureau of Customs (BOC) following a stinging public rebuke from President Benigno Aquino III in his State of the Nation Address (Sona) on July 22.
Biazon issued a memorandum directing the customs officials to relinquish their current assignments or designation in writing on or before Monday, July 29.
If they do not submit the letter, the bureau will go ahead and carry out the process of review and reassignments, he said.
Biazon said the younger Belmonte, who is the collector of the Manila International Container Terminal (MICT), will also be asked to give up his cushy post.
Belmonte is one of what insiders call the “Three Kings” of the bureau, politically well-connected collectors who head the three Metro Manila revenue districts and reportedly do not want to be removed or reassigned elsewhere—Rogel Gatchalian at the Port of Manila, Carlos So at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport and Belmonte at the MICT.
The three somehow escaped being included in the first major revamp of district collectors undertaken by Biazon early this year despite the revenue districts they headed failing to meet their revenue targets last year and in the first five months of 2013.
Belmonte is said to be backed by his brother, the Speaker, Gatchalian by Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile and So by the influential Iglesia ni Cristo.
The issue of the notoriously corrupt bureau being under the sway of politically powerful patrons came into the fore after Customs Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence Danilo Lim offered his courtesy resignation following the public scolding at the Sona, but not before denouncing “powerful forces” that he said stymied their job of running the bureau.
While Lim did not name the alleged influence peddlers, various media reports have since floated the names of the House Speaker and Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa.
Ricardo Belmonte is also rumored as being groomed to replace Biazon as Customs Commissioner.
34 years to make collector?
Belmonte yesterday denied that his stint at the BOC was because of the influence of his brother. He said the Speaker never meddled in his work at the Customs.
“If I am that influential, why would it take me 34 years to be a collector?” he told reporters.
“When I entered the bureau, my brother was not involved in politics yet. I think it’s not my fault that the people voted for him to be a politician,” he said.
Asked to comment about reports that he is being eyed as the next Customs chief, Belmonte said he would be retiring in February.
But when pressed, he said: “Well, if the President offers [the BOC post] to me, how can we say no? But for me to go out and seek for that, I will not do that. With all these troubles, why would I want these kinds of trouble?”
He clarified that he was not even close to President Aquino.
“I have not met him or talked to him personally. He probably knows me because of the name but as far as I’m concerned, I don’t know him personally,” Belmonte said.
His brother, the House Speaker, released this statement on the issue yesterday: “I have received texts and interview requests on allegations that appeared in a major daily today and I have only two comments on the matter: First, Gen. Lim should name the congressmen and the dubious transactions they supposedly entered into; and, second, my brother, Ricardo, has been in the Bureau of Customs for 34 years with an impeccable record. He certainly doesn’t need me to back him. And I have never done so.”
Biazon also defended Belmonte, saying he deserved to head the MICT because of his experience and capabilities.
“In fairness (sic) to collector Belmonte, he has been in the BOC long before any of us were here so if he is occupying a major port now it is because of his experience and capability and not because he is the brother of the Speaker of the House,” Biazon said.
“And in fairness (sic) to the Speaker, in my 20 months here at the bureau, not once did he call or send any communication to me to affect operations or affect my decisions,” Biazon said.
“If we are challenging people to name names, we should also challenge those who are naming names to come out in the open and be accountable for those accusations that they are saying,” he said.
17 kings, not 3
Biazon also downplayed the perceived power and influence of the “Three Kings.”
“There are 17 kings (in Customs), not 3. That is figurative speech. There are 17 collection districts, 17 kings and subkings. They are expected to submit their letters by Monday. If not, I will still carry out the reassignments,” Biazon said.
“I don’t acknowledge or recognize kings, they’re collectors under the authority of the commissioner. If there were those who were not included in the previous reshuffle, it was because it was my discretion and not because somebody imposed it on me. I am the Commissioner of the Customs, I have the authority, I have the discretion and I exercise that discretion,” he stressed.
Deputy Commissioner Horacio Suansing also denied that he had the backing of his first cousin, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago.
“You cannot choose your relatives. I’m lucky she is my relative, but my track record would speak for itself,” said Suansing, who claimed to have risen from the ranks in the 26 years that he has been at the BOC.
Biazon said the revamp of district collectors is just the first round of the process of reassignments that will be implemented in the agency.
“It’s logical that we start with the district collectors. Providing new leaders in the collection districts will at least give a fresh start on how to institute reforms down the line. We will focus next on the examiners, assistants as well as other personnel in the bureau,” he said, adding that the revamp would be “a continuing thing.”
“This is part of our measures to heed the calls for reforms in the bureau. We need to show how determined and committed we are in carrying out the reform agenda of our government,” he explained.
The BOC has 17 major port collectors and 37 subport collectors nationwide. Biazon said he does not expect a drop in customs collections, noting that collections are up 14 percent as of July 24.
Biazon said his directive will give him a free hand to reassign personnel in the bureau’s collection districts.
As of press time, two district collectors—Davao OIC district collector lawyer Edward James Dy Buco and Clark Customs collector Ronnie Silvestre—have already relinquished their posts.
Biazon said he will submit his recommendations on which collectors will be retained and which ones will be replaced to the Department of Finance (DOF).
In determining who will be retained or replaced in their posts, Biazon said the district collectors would be evaluated based on their performance and collection records.
“A good performance record is definitely a plus factor. We’ll also check if they are subject of complaints, their level of notoriety, among other things,” he said.
“The replacements are subject to the approval of the DOF. Under the law, I may designate the person to be assigned to a particular post but it has to be approved by the Secretary of Finance,” he said.
Biazon also called on so-called “powerful forces” outside the bureau not to interfere in the revamp.
“I think they will take it upon themselves not to intervene. I hope not,” he said.
Lim yesterday continued to refuse to name the “powerful forces” meddling in the operations of the customs bureau.
But he said he will share his information with Deputy Commissioner Juan Lorenzo Tañada, who also submitted a courtesy resignation and similarly denounced the meddling politicians. But he went even further, saying they were mostly senators and a few congressmen.
“We will compare notes,” Lim told reporters.
But Sen. Francis Escudero, the chair of the Senate committee on finance, said the customs officials would eventually have to face him at the budget hearings and he would ask them to name the government officials and lawmakers who made calls to ask for favors that have proven detrimental to the BOC’s work.
“The budget season is about to start. If there’s a senator who wants to call for an inquiry, I will participate,” Escudero said in an interview with dwIZ.
“But if I will come face to face with the officials of the Bureau of Customs, I guarantee … that I will ask questions and I will not allow them to make blanket accusations without specifying who did what and thus make all of us look guilty,” he said.
The committee on finance goes through the national expenditure program in the Senate and summons officials from the agencies to defend their allocations in the national budget.
“And there should be no executive hearing. He [Tañada] said it during a press conference, he should also be able to tell the public [who these politicians are] so that we will be able to identify them and so they can defend themselves,” Escudero said.
Ochoa cleared by Valte
Malacañang on Friday said Ochoa was not involved in the irregularities in the customs bureau and was interested to know the protectors of inefficient customs agents.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said Ochoa confirmed recommending the appointment of lawyer Peter Manzano as deputy commissioner, but has never been involved in any customs transactions.
Valte said there was “no truth” to reports that Ochoa was protecting inefficient customs officials so they would not be reshuffled.
“The ES has nothing to do with any transactions, illegal or otherwise, that have been mentioned in the course of these reports,” she said.
Valte said Ochoa himself was interested to know who the “protectors” were.
“He would also like to hear these names. There are many names being mentioned, senators are reportedly involved. As far as we’re concerned, we’re open to the disclosure of names and evidence,” she said. With reports from TJ Burgonio, Norman Bordadora and Christian Esguerra
First posted 2:07 pm | Friday, July 26th, 2013