By Sheila Mañalac And William B. Depasupil The Manila Times
EXECUTIVE Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. were identified as among the personalities acting as “padrinos” or godfathers to some ranking officials of the Bureau of Customs (BOC) who do not wish to be removed or reassigned somewhere else.
According to a an unimpeachable source of The Manila Times, Ochoa, touted as the “Little President,” and Belmonte, the fourth most powerful official in the country, have been protecting people at the bureau.
Belmonte and Ochoa “are among the government officials who act as power brokers and protectors to ensure that their men at the Bureau of Customs remain in their posts,” the source, whose credibility is beyond question, said.
He noted that Manila International Container Terminal (MICT) Collector Ricardo “Boysie” Belmonte is a brother of the Speaker, while Customs Deputy Commissioner Peter Manzano is Ochoa’s man in the agency.
“There are many in the bureau who have their own backers,” he added.
The source mentioned Customs Intelligence and Investigation Division chief Director Fernandino Tuazon, Deputy Commissioner Horacio Suansing, Deputy Commissioner Prudencio Reyes, Port of Manila Collector Rogel Gatchalian, NAIA District Collector Ding So, X-Ray Division chief Collector Mimi Talusan and Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service (CIIS) chief Richard Rebong.
Last January, Customs Commissioner Rozzano Rufino “Ruffy” Biazon ordered a reshuffle of officials to include Belmonte and Gatchalian. But the source said the two, who are among the so-called “three kings” at the bureau, have not been dislodged despite failing miserably in curbing corruption and hitting their target collections. The source said Tuazon also enjoys Ochoa’s protection.
Tuazon is among those being investigated by the Office of the Ombudsman in connection with the controversial 2,000 containers loaded with highly taxable goods worth P2 billion that disappeared on the way from the Port of Manila and Manila International Container Port to the Port of Batangas.
But even then, Tuazon got his present post following the retirement of Director Filomeno Vicencio.
Suansing was former Port of Manila collector. He is from Iloilo and a close relative of Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago. Gatchalian is reportedly a protégé of Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, while Talusan is related to the Singsons of Ilocos Sur.
Reyes, So and Rebong were reportedly being supported by a powerful religious sect.
Rebong is also one the controversial officials at the bureau. Before his appointment as CIIS chief, he was an “Intelligence Officer 1” with a salary grade of 8.
But Rebong was promoted to CIIS chief with a salary grade 25 or 17 degrees higher.
Last year, the Civil Service Commission issued a decision ousting Rebong as CIIS chief for being “unqualified.” The CSC order has not been carried out.
Reached for comment, Speaker Belmonte said he is not worried that his name was dragged into the controversy as he called on those who have evidence to prove their allegations to come out.
“I don’t feel alluded to at all. I have never talked to either one of them for any reason whatsoever. I challenge them to name names,” Belmonte said in a text message to the Times. He was referring to resigned Customs deputy commissioners Danilo Lim and Juan Lorenzo Tañada.
It was Lim who disclosed that “there are many ‘powerful forces’ in the bureau” who intervene in the agency’s affairs. He said that he had requested on at least six occasions to be transferred to another agency but Ochoa kept on telling him “diyan ka muna [stay put]” because the bureau still needed his services.
He also said that he intends to wait for the decision of President Benigno Aquino 3rd, before he decides to take on the next step.
Tañada confirmed in a radio interview also on Thursday that “political backers” exist in Customs.
He even speculated that it would take “two terms” for Aquino before the bureau could efficiently operate without these malpractices.
The Times asked Tañada if he had personally experienced being pressured by the same “powerful forces,” to which he replied: “While we receive calls, queries, and endorsements from many sectors, we do not let these affect our decision-making, which is primarily qualifications based.”
For his part, Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas, Jr., the Chairman of the House Committee on Justice, noted that Lim and Tañada should come clean instead of throwing mud on the whole Legislative branch.
“They should name them because otherwise, it is being unfair to Congress. We have 280 plus House members and 24 Senators. One of them [said] that he was forced to resign because his work is hampered by politicians calling him from time to time.
What is the nature of such calls?” Tupas pointed out.
“We need to know who these people are so they can be investigated, in congruence to the administration’s program of fighting graft and corruption,” Tupas, a member of the ruling Liberal Party, added.
Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas warned Customs officials against using such influence peddlers to justify their lackluster performance.
Fariñas is a part of the House contingent in the Commission on Appointments for the 16th Congress.
“I demand that they identify the alleged influence peddlers. Even if such claims were true, the politicians can only make calls. Those calls should not prevent Customs officials from discharging their duties,” Fariñas, who headed the House Sub-Committee on Customs in the 15th Congress, added.
Laguna Rep. Benjie Agarao echoed such sentiments, saying that such accusations are all useless without the names of erring public officials.
“It is not a good thing to say. If they know something, then reveal them. Otherwise, they should shut up,” Agarao said.
Lim on Thursday called on other top Customs officials to file their courtesy resignation so as to give President Benigno Aquino 3rd a “free hand” in reforming the bureau.
“I called on other customs officials to submit their resignation so as to give the President a free hand. That is the most prudent thing to do,” Lim said in a separate telephone interview from Baguio City.
Lim submitted his letter of resignation a day after Biazon filed his. On Monday, Aquino issued scathing remarks against the bureau and its officials during his State of the Nation Address.
Deputy Customs Juan Lorenazo Tañada submitted his on Wednesday.
The President has turned down the resignation of Biazon while that of Lim and Tañada have yet to be acted upon.
‘No one will be spared’
In Malacañang, officials said the Aquino government will be implementing a “wide-ranging reform” in the Customs bureau that will spare no one.
”The President always said we will go wherever the evidence leads. The President’s order is clear—nobody will be spared,” Palace spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a press conference.
He noted that all issues will be answered once the reforms to combat corruption in the BOC are implemented.
“We are going to reform Customs. We are going to do it,” Lacierda stressed, but he declined to give any details on the reform plan for the agency.
”If I even give you a glimpse of it, I am certain that they will be made aware of what the reform measures will be; and hence, for that reason, I cannot speak on any detail, or any glimpse, or a shadow of the reforms that we’re going to slip you by,” Lacierda explained.
On Lim’s claim that there were some external forces that seemed to be giving Customs officials a hard time doing their job, Lacierda said: “I’m sure there are intel reports that are, that we have—that the DOF has received and, for that reason, we are implementing a wide-ranging reform in the Customs.”
”Whatever his statements, whatever insinuations that came out of his statement, I think all that will be resolved when the reforms are implemented,” he said.
With Reports From Catherine S. Valente And Llanesca T. Panti