It was President Aquino himself who appointed to a higher position one of two customs officials implicated in the disappearance of more than a thousand container vans while in transit from the Port of Manila to the Port of Batangas two years ago, Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon on Thursday said.
Fernandino Tuason, who has been with the Bureau of Customs (BOC) since 2003, replaced his boss, Filomeno Vicencio Jr., as director of the BOC Intelligence Group. Vicencio, a retiree, is also included in the charge sheet of the National Bureau of Investigation.
Floro Calixihan Jr. took over Precy Bauzon’s post, becoming a deputy of the Manila International Container Terminal collector.
“I did not promote Fernandino Tuason as director of the BOC Intelligence Group. Being a presidential appointee, he applied directly to the Office of the President in September 2011. His application for reappointment was approved by Malacañang sometime in February 2012, not in September 2012 as reported by your paper,” Biazon said.
Months before charge
Tuason’s appointment came three months before the NBI recommended that he be charged by the Office of the Ombudsman with complicity in the alleged smuggling of wooden fabrics, kitchen and toilet items, and ceramics from Thailand and food items from the United States.
The items were kept in 20 twenty-foot containers that disappeared in 2011. Calixihan was among several customs officials implicated in the disappearance of the vans.
The Inquirer also learned about a third promotion made by Biazon that has raised eyebrows among BOC personnel.
Biazon signed Ricky Rebong’s appointment papers as Tuason’s replacement as chief of the BOC intelligence division.
The appointment catapulted his Salary Grade 8 to 24, a violation of Civil Service rules that has a three-step cap on promotions.
Asked about Rebong’s promotion, Biazon replied: “We will follow the Civil Service ruling that his appointment is disapproved. We have served him notice. He is part of the revamp of the intelligence group.”
Biazon phoned the Inquirer to correct the paper’s report on the promotion of two BOC officials tied to smuggling, noting the story was “full of inaccuracies.”
The former Muntinlupa City legislator said he “just wanted to correct the information in Wednesday’s Page 1 report (titled “2 customs execs tied to smuggling promoted”) of your paper.”
The BOC head emphasized “there’s nothing irregular” about the promotion of Tuason.
Biazon said Tuason’s “papers went through the proper channels.”
“Definitely, there’s routing of communications. From the Presidential Action Center in Malacañang, his application for reappointment was referred to the Department of Finance for review and evaluation, then to the Bureau of Customs which endorsed and sent it back to the DOF. Finally, his papers were forwarded to the Office of the President. No less than President Aquino okayed it in February last year,” he said.
Biazon denied that Calixihan was promoted in February as deputy of the MICP collector, Ricardo “Boysie” Belmonte, brother of Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr.
Biazon insisted that Calixihan had remained as Attorney III, Salary Grade 21 since 2003. (The NBI charge sheet listed Calixihan’s position as Attorney II of the Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service). But Inquirer sources maintained that Calixihan had already taken the post of Bauzon at the MICP.
The NBI accused Tuason and Calixihan—along with 19 other BOC officers, three brokers, three importer consignees and forwarders, and two warehouse owners—of grand conspiracy in the disappearance of 20 containers on various dates from February to June 2011.
The batch of 20 vans was part of the 1,626 containers that were reported missing in 2011, which led to the resignation of then Customs Commissioner Angelito Alvarez in September that year.
The NBI inquiry showed that Tuason and Calixihan had been alerted about the smuggled goods in the 20 containers consigned to Eagle Trading.
“But there were no examinations performed and spot checks by those concerned because after the alert orders were lifted, the 20 containers were immediately loaded to various trucks and were delivered directly to various destinations as advised by the broker and consignee of the trucking firms,” the NBI said in its filing of the case with the Ombudsman.
The NBI, which is attached to the Department of Justice, also said “the concerned BOC personnel, aside from intentionally not performing their assigned tasks and responsibilities did not even bother to check the status of the alerted container vans nor did they prepare the necessary post-examination report.”
On Thursday, Biazon also said the agency’s human resource office was “preparing the facts” regarding Tuason and Calixihan’s employment records.
Another customs official, meanwhile, took up the cudgels for the two officials, saying “the Ombudsman has not come up with its decision on the case.”
“At this point, Tuason and Calixihan, along with several other BOC personnel, are mere respondents in a case pending in the Ombudsman,” said the same official, who asked not to be named.
The other day, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima expressed surprise when he learned about the promotion of Tuason and Calixihan, saying “that is news to me.”
“They have not submitted their papers,” he added.