A neophyte senator urged President Aquino to temporarily take over the reins of the Bureau of Customs (BOC) until its stables are cleansed if he does not have the heart to fire its head, Ruffy Biazon.
Opposition Sen. Jose Victor “JV” Ejercito noted that the President might have qualms about booting out Biazon because he is a member of the administration’s Liberal Party (LP).
Malacañang on Wednesday refused to comment on Sen. Antonio Trillanes’ call to the President to crack down on “power-wielders” in the BOC but maintained reforms were forthcoming.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda declined to confirm Trillanes’ claim that the President knew the padrinos but said the executive department had a complete picture of the situation in the BOC.
“Part of the process of instituting reforms is to know the battlefield. It is safe to say that we know the battlefield and we know the lay of the land; and so, what the reforms are will be in response to the lay of the land,” he told reporters in a briefing.
Malacañang has vowed to institute extensive reforms in the agency.
“Maybe it’s difficult to let go of someone sporting the (party) color,” Ejercito said, apparently referring to the LP’s symbolic yellow when asked about Mr. Aquino’s seeming hesitance to let go of Biazon who has yet to eradicate smuggling syndicates since his appointment to the bureau in 2011.
Biazon ran for senator under the LP in 2010 but lost. He was appointed customs commissioner after the one-year ban on losing candidates accepting government positions.
Biazon’s father, Muntinlupa Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, is also an LP member and was among the first to pledge allegiance to then Sen. Benigno Aquino III when the party was deciding on a standard-bearer.
“We want the President to succeed but it seems he is having difficulty letting go when the person concerned is a political ally,” Ejercito said in a news conference yesterday.
“But if you are the President, your loyalty to the party should only be second to loyalty to the country,” the senator said.
Ejercito said it would be better if the President himself took a hands-on approach in cleaning up the BOC since he obviously knew those who needed to be removed.
In his State of the Nation Address (Sona) last week, President Aquino deplored the BOC for inefficiency and corruption but did not accept the resignation that Biazon volunteered minutes after his speech.
“If the President takes the lead in cleaning the agency, who could say no to that?” Ejercito said.
Biazon and Deputy Customs Commissioner Danilo Lim had been quoted as saying that the backers of corrupt officials in the agency include senators, congressmen and relatives of some top officials.
Reports have identified the so-called “Three Kings” in the agency as Ricardo Belmonte, brother of Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr.; district collector Carlos So of Ninoy Aquino International Airport and district collector Rogel Gatchalian of the Port of Manila.
Biazon had asked port collectors to relinquish their posts to make way for a revamp.
Ejercito said that if the President would not replace Biazon, the commissioner should at least be given a six-month deadline to “make headway” and improve the situation in the bureau.
By this, Ejercito said the BOC should reflect better collection efforts and curb the padrino (patrons) system.
Trillanes told reporters he called Lacierda “to explain to him the full context” of the Inquirer story on Wednesday in which Mr. Aquino was “dared” to name the padrinos in the BOC.
“I clarified that I wasn’t demanding anything from the President. I never challenged him,” Trillanes said.
The senator pointed out that the demand to name padrinos came from another source—retired Novaliches Bishop Teodoro Bacani—who addressed the challenge to customs officials.
True enough, the Inquirer report only quoted Trillanes saying as he awaits what Mr. Aquino would do about the padrinos “based on what he knows.”
Trillanes said the President raised the issue of the BOC’s lackadaisical performance and its inept employees in the Sona.
“For the President to mention it in the Sona means he knows something. He knows the big picture. I’m just waiting for what he will do based on what he knows,” Trillanes said in an ambush interview.
“The public is waiting also,” he added.
On Tuesday night, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte responded to Trillanes’ statement by saying: “Let’s just wait for the reforms set to be implemented, and then we can assess from there.”
Lacierda said he spoke with Trillanes but claimed they didn’t dwell on the latter’s public challenge to the President to crack down on the power wielders. He said the senator expressed support for Mr. Aquino’s reforms.
Lacierda also declined to say if the President had solid evidence against customs personnel when he lambasted them for their incompetence in his Sona.
“You will know our reforms … You know, we don’t want to telegraph what our measures will be. If I answer you one way, there will be a lot of implications or consequences. So the safest answer is to say: you will know,” he said.
“This is my last song syndrome with respect to the customs: let’s wait for the reforms,” he added.
Include oil smuggling
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said he wanted the planned Senate probe of the BOC padrino system to include oil smuggling.
It was the Senate finance committee chair, Francis Escudero, who filed a resolution on Tuesday directing three powerful Senate committees—blue ribbon, ways and means and his own panel—to lead the probe.
Recto said Petron Corp. went on record saying that the government was losing yearly between P30 billion and P40 billion in revenue due to the smuggling of refined petroleum products, mainly gasoline and diesel.
Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano suggested that whistle-blowers, who identify protectors of smuggling syndicates, be given cash incentives just like those who pinpoint criminal suspects to aid law enforcers.
Biazon said the BOC would fully cooperate with the Senate in its planned inquiry into the padrino system in the agency.
“We will cooperate with inquiries called for by the legislative branch,” he said.
In a blog on the padrino system in the agency, Biazon said sometime in March he was “surprised at the number of employees and officials in the bureau who are said to have their own political backers.”
“And we’re not just talking about top level or even middle management. We’re talking about even down to the clerk level,” he wrote.
He recalled: “One time, there was one person I put in the Customs Navy (floating status). It wasn’t long before I received letters from three congressmen inquiring as to why the person was removed from the post.”
“I’m told that one previous commissioner even had a political map of personnel in the bureau, identifying the connections that these personnel had with those in power,” he said.
Biazon noted that as early as April, he had pushed for the passage of a Congress measure that would seek to insulate the BOC from political patronage, as well as ban the endorsement or recommendation by politicians and other influential persons in the hiring or promotion of customs personnel.
The same bill “should also include the establishment of specific qualifications for anyone to be hired in the bureau. For instance, only those who have taken up customs administration or licensed customs brokers should be hired,” he added.