Corruption under Duterte: A record to kill for
MANILA, Philippines—“If I fail, kill me.”
This was Rodrigo Duterte’s dare to the public, as a presidential candidate then, should he fail to stop corruption in the first six months of his term as President.
This was back in January 2016. In May that year, he was elected and assumed the presidency a month after.
Five years into his post, Duterte, short of throwing his hands in the air out of exasperation, admitted eradicating corruption was “impossible.”
Lucky for him, people took his bluff seriously enough to vote for him but not seriously enough to actually execute his challenge.
It is worth noting that his administration was dogged by scandals and allegations of graft and coverups in state agencies—from prisons, the state health insurer, immigration, Customs, and law enforcement. Few led to convictions or high-profile resignations.
To his credit, Duterte did exert an effort to curb government corruption, apart from repeatedly expressing his frustration and saying he would resign due to it.
In 2020, he ordered the creation of a task force to probe corruption across all government agencies, including lawmakers and local executives like mayors and governors.
The task force, which was to be led by the Department of Justice, was ordered to focus on the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).
So far, it has received over 200 complaints and has acted on 40 reports since its creation, most of which involved public works projects. No cases have been filed yet, however.
Aside from this, Duterte has also used his public addresses, which were supposed to be for updates on the government’s COVID-19 response, to announce the names of officials either suspended or dismissed due to graft and corruption. He even went as far as naming lawmakers allegedly linked to corruption, but quickly adding that there was no hard evidence against them.
He has also fired, or at least vowed to fire, corrupt government officials, even with just a “whiff of corruption.” Interestingly, while some government officials accused of corruption have resigned, he reappointed them, anyway.
As Duterte is set to deliver his final State of the Nation Address (Sona), INQUIRER.net looks back at the major corruption issues that plagued his administration and hit the headlines and how he handled the issue.
P6.4-billion ‘shabu’ smuggling in 2017
A total of 605 kilos of crystal meth or “shabu” worth P6.4-billion was smuggled in the country and got past what should have been tight screening by the Bureau of Customs (BOC) in May 2017.
The billions of pesos worth of shabu, which was lodged in five metal cylinders and came from China and went through the Manila International Container Port (MICT), was discovered in a warehouse in Valenzuela City, already out of the Customs premises, and was seized by authorities.
Through congressional hearings, it was uncovered that several BOC officials, including then Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon, were allegedly involved in the smuggling, according to the statements by Customs broker Ruben Taguba.
Faeldon was even detained from September 2017 to March 2018 at the Senate as well as Pasay City Jail for refusing to participate in the investigation.
Even Duterte’s son, Paolo, who was Davao city mayor at the time, along with Paolo’s brother-in-law Manases Carpio, were tagged in the controversy by then Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV.
Trillanes also tagged the younger Duterte as a member of the Chinese organized crime gang Triad, claiming the then vice mayor had a dragon tattoo on his back.
In August 2017, Sen. Panfilo Lacson, in a privilege speech, revealed the “tara system” in the BOC where officials and employees received payoffs that had been in place in the agency for a long time.
In 2018, Ombudsman probers found enough evidence to launch a full-blown investigation against Faeldon and several others over the meth smuggling.
Faeldon had described this as “ridiculous,” adding that he felt he was being persecuted.
However, the fact-finding panel said there was a “lack of basis” to charge Paolo Duterte, who has since resigned as Davao City vice mayor, and son-in-law, lawyer Manases Carpio, in the case.
Duterte refused to fire Faeldon despite the controversies, saying he continued to have full confidence in the former rebel officer as a Customs chief. He declared Faeldon to be an “honest” and “upright man.”
Instead, Duterte, in December 2017, reappointed Faeldon as deputy administrator of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD), an agency under the Department of National Defense, at the height of the controversy over the meth smuggling case in the BOC which had prompted Faeldon to resign as commissioner.
Duterte assigned Isidro Lapeña, another military man, to replace Faeldon at the BOC.
Faeldon served in the OCD from December 2017 until October 18.
After Faeldon’s stint at the OCD, Duterte had him transferred to the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) as director-general.
Not even a year after he was officially appointed, Faeldon was again embroiled in a controversy that was triggered by news that convicted rapist-murderer Antonio Sanchez was set for early release.
GCTA for sale scheme in 2019
The 2019 controversy surrounding the Good Conduct and Time Allowance (GCTA) was catapulted to the limelight when Sanchez was reportedly set to be released as a beneficiary of the law.
This led to the sacking of Faeldon and Duterte ordering 1,900 freed convicts to surrender.
Duterte gave 15 days to close to 2,000 convicts of heinous crimes who were released early due to “good behavior” to surrender. He also said he would offer a P1-million bounty to anyone who could give information that would lead to the capture of a heinous crime convict.
However, the issue further opened a can of worms, especially after the Senate decided to probe the issue.
It was found that there is an alleged racket in the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) where officers offer convicts freedom for a price.
Yolanda Camilon, wife of an inmate at NBP, testified at a Senate hearing that she paid P50,000 for the early release of her common-law husband. She said prices for freedom ranged from P30,000 to more than P1 million, with some paying even P1.5 million.
Another prisoner confirmed the scheme.
Then sacked BuCor chief Nicanor Faeldon said it was the first time he had heard of the scheme and it saddened him.
Amid this, Duterte joined the call to amend the law. He also said he would fire BuCor officials involved in corruption and spare those who implemented the GCTA law in “good faith.”
He also ordered the Office of the Ombudsman to conduct an investigation into the alleged anomalies.
The Ombudsman, in 2020, ordered the dismissal of three BuCor officials for their alleged involvement in the controversial GCTA for sale scheme.
The senators also signed a committee report, which the Senate has adopted, recommending the filing of graft and corruption charges against Faeldon, saying the then sacked BuCor chief was liable for nonfeasance when he did not follow procedures and requirements of Department Order (DO) 953.
Aside from Faeldon, the committees also found former officials of the BuCor as well as officials of the NBP Hospital liable for grave offenses and direct bribery.
P11-billion shabu smuggling in 2018
Another controversy shook the BOC in 2018 when four empty magnetic lifters, believed to have been carrying P11-billion worth of shabu, were found in a warehouse in General Mariano Alvarez town in Cavite.
The PDEA initially estimated the amount of shabu, which was first thought to be only about one ton, to be at least 1.6 tons worth about P11 billion.
Then BOC chief Lapeña initially insisted that there was no shabu in the lifters but he eventually conceded after it was found that these matched two other lifters that were found containing shabu at the Manila International Container Terminal.
In August 2018, a senior BOC official alleged Lapeña could be involved in a coverup of the smuggling. Ma. Lourdes Mangaoang, deputy collector for passenger service at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, said she showed Lapeña copies of X-ray images of the shipping containers which held magnetic lifters days before the PDEA found them abandoned in Cavite.
But instead of telling her he would initiate an investigation, Lapeña asked Mangaoang where she got the images and who else had the images.
Then Customs spokesperson Erastus Dino Austria downplayed Mangaoang’s allegations, saying the bureau had submitted to both the Senate and the House all 67 X-ray images related to the magnetic lifters.
In October 2018, Duterte sacked Lapeña and appointed another military man, retired Gen. Leonardo Guerrero, former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, to replace Lapeña. Guerrero was then the administrator of the Maritime Industry Authority.
Aside from this, Duterte also ordered the “freezing” of all section, department and unit heads at the BOC.
Not long after, Duterte assigned Lapeña as head of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, which is a Cabinet position, since Lapeña still enjoyed the “full trust and confidence” of the President, according to Malacañang.
Lapeña and Guerrero took their oaths of office before October ended.
Malacañang maintained that the attacks against Lapeña are part of a smear campaign led by corrupt individuals, including BOC personnel hurt by his anti-corruption campaign.
“We maintain that drug syndicates, in cahoots with the bureau’s corrupt officials and employees, are behind the ongoing vilification campaign against Mr. Isidro Lapeña,” then-presidential spokesperson and chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo said in a statement.
Six cops were also allegedly linked to the smuggling and faced a probe conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation.
The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, in December 2018, sought the indictment of one of its former senior officials, former PDEA Deputy Director General Ismael Fajardo, and 43 others for their alleged role in the smuggling.
The complaint, filed at the Department of Justice, did not include former BOC Commissioner Isidro Lapeña as there was no sufficient evidence showing his involvement in the smuggling, then PDEA Director General Aaron Aquino said.
However, in January 2019, the National Bureau of Investigation recommended criminal and administrative charges against Lapeña for his failure to prevent the smuggling.
The NBI submitted its findings to the Department of Justice (DOJ), naming nearly 50 people, including Lapeña, who should face drug importation, graft, and administrative charges, as well as charges of false testimony and perjury.
The agency recommended that Lapeña, along with Manila district collector Vener Baquiran, be charged with graft, dereliction of duty and grave misconduct for their inaction on the meth smuggling in magnetic lifters.
It added that Lapeña showed “deliberate intent to favor” the importers of shabu because he did not file charges against them. He is likewise liable for graft for causing injury to the government through the entry of a large amount of shabu in the country.
PhilHealth corruption issues in 2019, 2020
In June 2019, the Philippine Daily Inquirer exposed a scam in the Philippine Health Insurance Inc. (PhilHealth) involving the approval and release of payments for patients who are already dead and those who are yet to complete treatment.
This was revealed by Edwin Roberto and Liezel Santos de Leon, former WellMed Dialysis Center employees, adding that the state insurer failed to check the validity of the payment claims.
In response to this, PhilHealth said it has filed complaints against the dialysis center and vowed to investigate the scandal.
The whistleblowers also sought charges against PhilHealth officials.
Duterte likewise instructed the NBI to arrest the owners of the dialysis centers who were implicated in the “ghost dialysis” scam.
He has also directed PhilHealth to file criminal charges against those involved in the scam.
Duterte met with PhilHealth executives following huge losses by the state insurer due to fraudulent claims.
Not long after, Duterte then asked PhilHealth acting chief Roy Ferrer and its board members to hand over their “courtesy resignation” over the controversy, because he already “lost confidence” in them.
In June 2019, the DOJ indicted the owner of the WellMed dialysis center and the two whistleblowers for 17 counts of estafa through falsification of official documents. They were arrested in October 2019.
Not long after this scandal, another plagued the state insurer and, worse, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
PhilHealth once again started to slide into the limelight after allegations of “widespread corruption” in the agency have been made, with the scandal blown up further by the resignation of several of the agency’s officials.
Anti-legal fraud officer Thorsson Keith was among those who resigned, saying he stepped down from his post due to corruption, citing “rampant and patent unfairness in the promotion process” and delayed salaries and hazard pay.
Keith, testifying at a Senate hearing in August 2020, described the recent PhilHealth anomalies as “crime of the year” that resulted in the loss of P15-billion in the state insurer’s funds, allegedly pocketed by members of the agency’s “mafia.”
The P15 billion covered the unauthorized release of interim reimbursement mechanism (IRM) funds, which are supposedly allocated for “fortuitous events” such as the pandemic, to hospitals that have not yet recorded COVID-19 cases. This also included the alleged overpriced information and communications technology projects proposed by the state insurer, which was also flagged by the Commission on Audit.
Then PhilHealth president and chief executive officer Ricardo Morales did not deny the existence of fraud in the state insurer, admitting it could have lost P10.2 billion in 2019 alone which could double to P18 billion by 2021 if irregularities are not addressed.
He, however, defended the alleged overpriced IT project, saying the P2.1-billion project is “paltry” against the “tens of billions a year” that Philhealth has lost to fraud.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque was likewise tagged in the controversy, as one of whistleblowers named him as the “godfather” of the so-called “mafia.” Duque has denied the allegation.
On Aug. 26, 2020, Morales stepped down from his post and his resignation was accepted by Duterte.
Duterte then named former NBI director Dante Gierran as the new head of the embattled agency.
In the same month, Duterte ordered the DOJ to create a task force that would look into irregularities in PhilHealth.
After the Senate concluded its hearings, it recommended charges against Duque, Morales and several other top officials for the alleged misuse of funds under the agency’s IRM.
Duterte then approved the DOJ-led task force’s recommendation to file cases of graft, malversation and illegal use of public funds, gross misconduct and gross neglect, among others, against Morales and other PhilHealth officials. However, Duque was spared.
In September 2020, Duterte raised the idea of abolishing PhilHealth but in the meantime, he would instead revamp the institution.
In October 2020, the NBI, upon the recommendation of the DOJ, filed criminal complaints against nine former and incumbent officials of PhilHealth.
This “involves the questionable grant of advances to a number of health care institutions in the National Capital Region pursuant to the Interim Reimbursement Mechanism provided for under PhilHealth Circular No. 2020-2007.”
In the same month, PhilHealth said 43 of its senior officers gave their courtesy resignation, following Gierran’s memorandum “directing all senior officers from Salary Grade 26 and above to tender their courtesy resignation.”
Last January, the NBI filed an administrative and criminal complaint against Morales and more than 20 others at the Office of the Ombudsman after it found that Morales and other PhilHealth executives had “conspired” with officials of a private dialysis center that received P33.8 million in emergency funds earmarked for hospitals treating COVID-19 patients.
The NBI also said Morales and his subordinates ignored policies that they themselves set for the use of the P30-billion interim reimbursement mechanism (IRM) in providing “unwarranted benefits” to B. Braun Avitum Philippines Inc., a dialysis center.
The complaint was filed a day before an interagency body headed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) endorsed also to the Ombudsman a report by the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (PACC) alleging graft against 25 PhilHealth officials in connection with a “ghost” and “double claims” scheme that had financially strained the state insurer.
“Pastillas” bribery scheme at the BI in 2020
The country’s immigration agency also took the scandal stage.
In 2020, a bribery scheme, dubbed as “pastillas”, came to light where officials of the Bureau of Immigrations (BI) received bribes allowing hundreds of thousands of Chinese individuals to illegally enter the country to work for Philippine offshore gaming operators (Pogos).
The racket, which also involved Filipino and Chinese travel agencies, was exposed in a Senate hearing by Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who called it a “pastillas operation” as the bribe money was usually rolled up like the popular milk candy.
Through the scheme, corrupt immigration officers in cahoots with tour operators provided “VIP treatment” to Chinese who want to work for Pogos illegally for a P10,000 “service fee” per Chinese.
Each immigration officer involved in the scheme at Naia Terminal 1 allegedly received P20,000 weekly, and P8,000 weekly for those at Terminal 3, a whistleblower said.
There also were “special arrangements” that allowed blacklisted Chinese, or those with derogatory records, to enter the country and whose passports were not even scanned on arrival.
The rate for these arrangements was around P50,000 to P200,000 per head and the package included hassle-free departure, the whistleblower added.
Hontiveros said the “masterminds” of the scheme had pocketed over P40 billion in kickbacks since 2017 through the scam and from another scheme called “Visa Upon Arrival.”
Duterte ordered the sacking of all immigration officials and employees involved in the scheme.
In October, the Ombudsman suspended 44 immigration officials linked to the pastillas scheme.
In November, Duterte summoned immigration officials for a “dressing down” and gave them “pastillas” where money was inserted, and dared them to eat it.
In the same month, the NBI filed a fresh complaint at the Ombudsman against 86 persons linked to the pastillas scam, including the reported ringleader.
In December 2020, the Ombudsman slapped a six-month preventive suspension without pay on 83 BI employees facing charges over the “pastillas” bribery scheme. This did not include the alleged ringleader, identified as Marc Red Mariñas and four others since they were no longer working for the government.
In March this year, Hontiveros revealed that the group behind the pastillas scam is also involved in another scheme involving outbound trafficking of Filipino women to war-torn Syria.
In the alleged trafficking scheme, immigration officers are allegedly paid P50,000 for each Filipino woman trafficked out of the country, as claimed by four victims, whoREAD came forward and sought help from Hontiveros office.
Amid all the corruption issues that plagued the Duterte administration in its over five years of reign, only two officials, along with a retired cop at the time, have been convicted of plunder.
This year, anti-graft court Sandiganbayan found Al Arhosino, Michael Robles –who are brothers of Duterte in the Lex Talionis fraternity—and former cop Wenceslao “Wally” Sombero Jr. guilty beyond reasonable doubt of plunder and corruption for their involvement in the P50 million Jack Lam bribery scandal in 2016.
They were sentenced to reclusion perpetua, or 40 years in prison, for plunder and 10 years in jail for graft.
In 2017, the Bureau of Immigrations (BI) officials were exposed for receiving P50 million from Lam, a Chinese gambling tycoon, in exchange for freeing over 1,300 Chinese nationals illegally working at Fontana Leisure Parks and Casino in Pampanga.
Sombero, a retired police officer, was the middleman between Lam and the immigration officers.
The payoff among Sombero, Argosino, and Robles happened at the City of Dreams in Parañaque. This was seen in CCTV footage that caught the handoff beginning 12:30 a.m. of Nov.27, 2016.
READ: Dalawang retiradong BI officials, isang pulis, hinatulan ng habang buhay na pagkabilanggo ng Sandiganbayan
Last July 15, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in an interview that the Duterte administration was “satisfied” with its anti-corruption efforts through the years, while admitting defeat in completely obliterating corruption in the government.
He touted the President’s weekly announcement of government officials’ names sacked, suspended or tagged in corruption.
Roque said he would give the Duterte administration an “8 out of 10” grade for its efforts to stem corruption.
“Where did you see a President who, every week in Talk to the People, reads the names of those sacked from government?” said Roque.
“It’s to show by means of example to others that corruption is not tolerated but, of course, the truth is still there,” he said in Filipino at a chance interview during the inauguration of 18-km of the Central Luzon Link Expressway in Tarlac province.
“This is one of the unfinished business that the President is saying so by grade, I think I would give the President an 8 out of 10 on corruption,” Roque said.
Duterte had revealed plans to run for vice president after he steps down as president, something that has never been done by a departing president before.
He had said it was a “good idea” since he still has “unfinished business” including ending corruption, criminality and the drug trade.
“That’s what I left behind which I was unable to do because it was not in my control,” Duterte said in a June 16 speech.
“Maybe being vice president would be good,” he said.
However, in a separate pronouncement, Duterte said he planned to run for vice president to circumvent possible lawsuits he would face once he steps down as President and loses his immunity.
“They keep on threatening me with lawsuits and everything, Trillanes and Carpio, always threatening to sue me,” Duterte said in Filipino.
“The law says president or vice president you have immunity. So I’ll just run for vice president,” Duterte said. “And after that I’ll run for vice president, and vice president and vice president,” he said.
The 2022 elections would be grading time by the Filipino people on Duterte and a referendum whether they still want Duterte to be a top government official or just, like Duterte himself has been saying, let the President rest as he was already tired.
It would depend, of course, if Duterte runs for vice president. No one can be sure yet.
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