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They’re boasting Ochoa gets P10 million monthly

President Aquino lashed out at and shamed the Bureau of Customs in his state of the nation address because of persistent complaints by his business supporters that corruption at the agency is now worse even than during convicted President Estrada’s short-lived regime.

One clear indication of this is that a shadowy Chinese businessman known to be one of the major jueteng lords during Estrada’s administration has become one of the top godfathers in Customs, the go-to person if an importer needs to clear his shipment fast, and cheaply.

I’ve always been cynical over purported whistle-blowers, as they always have an ulterior motive, often to hit back at the person they’re allegedly exposing for some perceived injury. Journalists, especially columnists, often get these anonymous letters and emails alleging instances of corruption when the letter-writer merely wants to remove this official who has slighted him or has refused to give him a promotion.

However, I make an exception of the email below sent to me last week, which I’ve translated loosely from the Pilipino original. Firstly, the writer’s motive is quite transparent. But that explains why he would write the letter. Secondly, from my knowledge of the Customs bureau and the lingo used there, he does seem to know what he is talking about.

However, I’ve used code initials for the Customs officials and deleted the names of the offices the writer is referring to, to be fair to them. If they feel they are alluded to, I’d be glad to publish in this column their side.

“We small brokers condemn Deputy Commissioner M’s continuing extortion through his greedy Chief of Staff Atty. B and his bagman O.

“What’s painful for us is that two different bribes are demanded for one container: a minimum of P20,000 each for two different bureau of customs’ offices, even if both are under Deputy Commissioner M.

“If a broker doesn’t pay the P20,000 each to the two offices, his shipment is put on hold. If he doesn’t fork over the money, his shipment will be delayed so that the storage fees will amount to more than the value of the shipment. Worse, he could be charged with smuggling to make an example of him to others.

“These officials aren’t content with their extorted dirty money so they’re going themselves into the brokering business, and demanding that importers shift to a brokerage firm owned by one of the official’s girlfriend and his brother.

“These two officials recently cleared the shipment brokered by the girlfriend which contained luxury cars including a Land Cruiser, a Range Rover, and a Ferrari at the Port of Davao, and the taxes and duties paid amounted to only P375,000.

“Worse, this group is exploiting the cases investigated by a Finance Department’s unit, Run After the Smugglers (RATS), by demanding millions of pesos from accused brokers and importers if they want their cases to be dismissed in the courts.

“They do this by selling the originals of important documents that are evidence of the smuggling attempt, so the courts would have no choice but to dismiss the cases. That’s the reason most cases filed by RATS in court have been dismissed. This happened in a big case involving oil smuggling.

“This deputy commissioner and his chief of staff are so bold that they are seldom seen in their offices but hang out at the Manila Hotel or at Hyatt (Regency) Hotel, where they negotiate with brokers for their bribes.

“The deputy commissioner in his short period in the post has become so rich that he is building a mansion in a town in Ilocos Sur. His chief of staff on the other hand is building his mansion in Isabela. The bagman on the other hand recently bought a condominium at Ocean Tower along Roxas Boulevard, while his girlfriend bought hers on a different floor.

“The two are boasting here at Customs that they are giving Executive Secretary Ochoa P10 million monthly. As a result Ochoa’s reputation here is so bad, even if they’re probably just using his name. “

The last sentence is actually difficult to translate in to English:

“Wala po silang katinag-tinag dahil sa lakas ng kanilang padrinong si Executive Secretary Paquito ‘Jojo’ Ochoa na pinagkakalandakan nilang binibigyan nila ng P10 milyon monthly payola. Gasgas na gasgas na nga po ang pangalan ni Executive Secretary gayong sila ang mas nakikinabang sa pangongotong nila.”

I doubt the boast of those corrupt Customs officials. When I was in government, even if I only had a staff position, I found out later that so many scalawags were dropping my name, and of other officials in top positions then.

I do hope that these officials boasting would enrage Aquino and Ochoa so much that they’d really act against rather than just talk about corruption in Customs.

One clear way of doing this is to undertake real – and not just-for-media — “life-style checks” and investigate Customs officials’ wealth, which most corrupt officials are too careless or too bold to hide.

If their assets are obviously not the result of their government salaries (the highest of which, including all emoluments, would amount monthly to just P45,000), they can be immediately fired and charged under existing laws and regulations.

It was the weapon of life-style checks undertaken by its Independent Commission Against Corruption that rid Hong Kong of its infamous rampant corruption in the late 1970s and 80s.

When I was Presidential Chief of Staff in 2001 to 2002 in President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration, we organized a so-called “Transparency Group” that undertook these lifestyle checks effectively, with about a dozen top officials in three departments forced to resign or against whom graft charges were filed. This approach was institutionalized in the Finance Department under its Revenue Integrity Protection Service (RIPS) created in 2003 through Arroyo’s Executive Order No. 259, and in a similar unit in the Office of the Ombudsman.

Customs Commissioner Rozzano Rufino Biazon last week claimed that there “is an ongoing ‘lifestyle check’ among Customs personnel and this has resulted in the dismissal of several officials and employees the past several months.”

Really? Only the following Customs staff have been reported under Aquino’s administration to have undergone the life-style check and failed:

• Reported in February 2011, and undertaken by the Finance Department’s RIPS: Raul Enriquez, a guard at the Customs House at the Ninoy Aquino International) in Pasay City whose salary was P100,500 a year but was found to have assets worth P5.4 million.

• Reported June this year undertaken by the Ombudsman, Collector IV at the Port of Cebu Maximo Dela Peña Reyes, who could not explain his wealth of P89 million.

That’s it, after three years under Aquino: two customs men lifestyle checked and failed it.

I dare Ochoa and Aquino to:

Undertake a life-style check on Biazon himself, all his deputy commissioners (including the House Speaker’s brother Ricardo Belmonte of course), all port collectors, and the chiefs of staff of all these officials. Set up a section on their website containing their Statement of Assets and Liabilities, and Net Worth, and invite the public to email, regular mail, or text tips on these officials’ assets. Inform the public through this site the results of these life-style checks.

That would certainly prove that Aquino is dead serious in his tuwid na daan, and that it is preposterous to allege that Ochoa is getting P10 million monthly from corrupt customs officials.