BOC exec admits escorting Virginia Torres
A Bureau of Customs employee has confirmed that former Land Transportation Office (LTO) chief Virginia Torres tried to negotiate the release from the BOC of 64 shipping containers of smuggled Thai sugar worth over P100 million as reported earlier by the Inquirer.
Jerry Ponce, BOC operations officer assigned to the agency’s Warehousing Monitoring Audit office, issued an affidavit where he stated that he came to know Torres early this year “through a friend somewhere in Pampanga.” Torres hails from neighboring Tarlac province.
He recalled that on Aug. 20, the former LTO boss “called me through a cell phone and asked me if I knew the Intelligence Group (IG) office.”
They later met at the main door of the Office of the Commissioner building.
“In good faith and without any hesitation, I immediately accompanied her to the IG office. Then I left her and returned to our office,” Ponce said.
According to Ponce, Torres called him again and asked him to return to the IG office.
“To my surprise, I heard Ms. Virgie Torres seeking assistance and advice from (former police Gen. Willie Tolentino, Customs Deputy Commissioner Jessie Dellosa’s special assistant) on how to facilitate the release of the sugar shipments. General Tolentino explained that they were already alerted and misdeclared in the first place,” he said.
He issued the statement for fear that “IG personnel might get the notion that I am part of the group of Ms. Torres negotiating the release of the shipments.”
“I also feared that there were some statements issued by Ms. Torres that might incriminate me in the future in the course of the IG investigation on sugar smuggling….I have to tell the truth that I just accompanied Ms. Torres in good faith,” said Ponce, who is also president of the BOC Association of Iglesia ni Cristo Employees.
Dellosa earlier confirmed to the Inquirer that the controversial former assistant Department of Transportation and Communications secretary had visited the IG office “to appeal her case.”
Help a friend
The shipments, imported through alleged dummy firms, were part of more than 120 shipping containers that were the subject of 24 alert orders issued by the IG in the past five months.
Contacted by phone, Torres admitted going to the IG office on Aug. 20. However, she said she was only trying to help a friend, Philip Sy, said to be a customs player, and she had no idea she was dealing with shipments of smuggled sugar.
Malacañang on Monday commended the BOC’s IG for the handling of the Torres case, noting that it “shows the resolve of the government that we will not countenance any influence peddling no matter who you are.”
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda, in a news conference, said they “commend the decision of and the conduct of the BOC officials in making sure that we do not condone smuggling in our shores and ports.”
But on Monday, Dellosa was reluctant to answer questions at the House ways and means committee hearing, claiming that Torres’ case was “confidential” and “still under investigation.”
“This is alarming. Is customs now an open city?” said Valenzuela Rep. Magtanggol Gunigundo, who was irked that Dellosa refused to discuss with the committee the “serious allegations” against Torres.
Committee chair Marikina Rep. Miro Quimbo was annoyed that Dellosa was also evasive when questioned about his interviews with the Inquirer.
Quimbo wanted Dellosa to elaborate on his comments published in the Inquirer last Sunday in which Dellosa said that Torres was turned down because her request was against regulations. Dellosa refused, claiming that he did not talk to any reporter from the Inquirer.
“If I were a PMAer, I would ask you to man up sir. But I am not. Did you talk to this reporter?” asked Quimbo.
Dellosa replied: “I don’t think so.”
For his part, Customs Commissioner Bert Lina admitted that Torres had asked to pay him a courtesy call after his appointment. But Lina said that he only met with Torres once and that she did not make any requests.
In Bacolod City, sugar industry leaders have called on President Aquino to order an investigation into Torres’ alleged attempt to get the smuggled sugar out of customs.
Enrique Rojas, president of the National Federation of Sugarcane Planters, said the attempt validated an earlier report that smuggling would intensify to raise campaign funds for next year’s election.
Francis de la Rama, head of the Confederation of Sugar Producers of Negros Occidental, said Liberal Party standard bearer Mar Roxas should do something about the report. Otherwise, his presidential bid would be affected.
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