MANILA, Philippines – With fresh assurance of presidential support, Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon yesterday threatened to expose influence peddlers among members of the House of Representatives and other politicians whom he called shameless.
He made the threat a day after President Duterte told him to stay on amid investigations by the Senate and the House of Representatives on the smuggling in May of P6.4 billion worth of shabu that got past the Port of Manila.
“Let us not be hypocrites. I know you. You cannot look at me in the eyes. If you push me to the wall, I will tell the whole world what you have been doing (at Customs),” Faeldon said, addressing lawmakers in an interview over dzMM.
As this developed, the Department of Justice (DOJ) yesterday issued an immigration lookout bulletin order against businessman Richard Tan and six others tagged in the shabu smuggling.
In a four-page memorandum, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II ordered the Bureau of Immigration (BI) to monitor possible flight of Tan alias Richard Chen, Chen Yu Long and Ken Joo Lung and other subjects of ongoing investigation on the smuggling of 604 kilos of shabu. Tan owns the warehouse where the contraband was found.
“I really don’t want to talk [about this], but the congressmen want us to tell the truth. So I would like to tell this to the public, please stop influencing corrupt practices in the bureau. You have to respect this country,” Faeldon said.
He did not name the lawmakers he threatened to expose. House Minority Leader Danilo Suarez said Faeldon should name names or shut up.
Earlier, Faeldon’s chief of staff, accountant-lawyer Mandy Therese Anderson, said Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez pushed for the promotion of a Customs officer who she said was “unqualified” for the position he was seeking.
Alvarez initially denied Anderson’s allegation, saying it was “far from the truth,” but later admitted he endorsed the promotion of a certain Sandy Sacluti when his May 15 endorsement letter to Faeldon was leaked to the media.
It was not lobbying, the Speaker said.
Anderson said an aide of Alvarez vowed to make life difficult for her and her boss after they turned down the Speaker’s request.
Alvarez claimed that the controversy involving his endorsement of Sacluti was meant to divert public attention from the P6.4-billion drug smuggling case that the House committees on dangerous drugs and ways and means are looking into.
In his radio interview, Faeldon said he welcomes the congressional investigations.
“I am the first person who wants the truth about this drug shipment to come out, so I do not want to deviate from that,” he said.
He also said he takes responsibility for “all the actions and inactions of my employees and all the drugs that we have apprehended and not apprehended.”
The P6.4-billion drug shipment from China arrived at the Manila port on May 17. Customs released the shipment without inspection six days later.
Acting on a tip from their counterparts in Xiamen, Customs intelligence agents raided a warehouse in Valenzuela City on the night of May 25 up to the morning of the next day and recovered the huge shabu cargo in five metal cylinders. Faeldon visited the warehouse on May 26.
During the hearing of the House committee on dangerous drugs on Tuesday, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) regional director for Metro Manila Wilkins Villanueva accused Customs of bungling their case on the drug shipment.
He said Customs agents violated the law and rules on the handling of evidence obtained in anti-drug raids.
Congressmen said under the law, the PDEA is the lead agency in anti-drug operations.
‘Shame on you’
Also yesterday, Faeldon told reporters that officials involved in influence peddling or lobbying for anyone are guilty of corruption. “Shame on you,” he said, referring to corrupt officials.
“They want me to influence the promotion board and so that their people here will be promoted and I told them right to their faces that I will never lift a finger to influence the promotion board. Why? Even that is a form of corruption,” he said.
“I am appealing to you, you know that your request is a form of corruption and you insist and you would get mad. My God, shame on you. Stop it. This is not just your country, this is not your property. This is not mine. This is the country’s Bureau of Customs. This is the Filipino people’s Bureau of Customs, so don’t act like you own this,” he added.
“Some even gave instructions as to where these Customs people should be assigned. If that is the case then they should be the commissioner so they could take the responsibility for all the stupidity here,” he pointed out. “I am the one being blamed for the lousiness here but they are the ones trying to bring in people here who are lousy.”
He admitted that there had been instances when the thought of resigning crossed his mind.
To his critics, the former Navy captain said, “Try to boot me out every day but as long as I am here I will continue to say no.”
He stressed he is not clinging to his post as commissioner. “If tomorrow they will succeed in booting me out of here that is going to be the happiest day of my life. Who wants this job? Come on, this is not the job for me,” he said.
When he was given the top BOC post, Faeldon said he knew very little about the agency. “I only know one thing, saying no… And I have said no to a lot of people already. That is the only qualification I have, I can say ‘no’ to anyone. I have said ‘no’ to importers,” he said.
“I will continue to say no to people who are trying to influence the bureau in any form of malpractices,” he pointed out.
“I warned you already when I assumed office that you can not continue asking favors… I am here to work for this country. My marching order is not to work for anybody,” he added.
He reported that during his first year in office, the bureau has suspended or cancelled the accreditation of 834 importers, while there is an ongoing investigation of 1,400 others.
Smuggling, no sweat
At a hearing of the House committee on dangerous drugs, Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas said it’s easy for smugglers to bring in contraband by going around the BOC monitoring system.
He said he based his assessment on the testimonies of Customs officials in the inquiry on the release of P6.4-billion worth of illegal drugs from China last May 23.
“It’s so easy to smuggle,” he told BOC officials led by Faeldon as he and other congressmen urged them to install a stricter system.
During the hearing, Customs officials, including secret witness suspended official Larribert Hilario, testified that they are relying on the information uploaded by Customs brokers on their computerized monitoring system in flagging suspicious shipments.
They said the information includes the name of the importer, description of the cargo, origin of the shipment, value and the vessel carrying the shipment.
Congressmen said importers and their brokers would naturally not declare contraband like the 605 kilos of shabu contained in five metal cylinders brought in by relatively new importer EMT Trading on May 17.
The drug cargo even passed through the BOC express lane without inspection after it was declared as kitchenware.
Customs officials suspect that two unnamed Taiwanese drug smugglers are the real owners of the cargo.
Fariñas wondered aloud why those behind the smuggling did not claim the drugs shortly after the cargo was released on May 23.
“Why did they wait for three days until May 25 when it was seized? They already succeeded in smuggling it into the country. My suspicious mind tells me that this was an operation that also involved the Chinese. Maybe, something went wrong and the Chinese told our Customs people to just confiscate it,” he said.
He said he could not understand why the Chinese tipsters asked the team of BOC intelligence chief Neil Estrella to “protect” warehouse owner identified as Richard Tan when the latter should have been considered a suspect.
Volunteering an answer, Estrella said, “Based on my years of experience in law enforcement, that is really how drug syndicates operate. They wait for some time to check if the authorities had followed them. In this case, we seized it before they could bring it out of the warehouse.”
Faeldon told senators last week that the drug shipment was not flagged because Hilario failed to encode certain parameters that would have alerted them to the suspicious cargo.
He said the parameters should have included the fact that EMT Trading was a new importer and that the shipment originated from China.
But Hilario said he had recommended to import assessment chief Milo Maestrecampo that an alert be issued on the drugs.
However, Maestrecampo said he could not have issued an alert order because the value of the shipment uploaded by broker Teejay Marcellana was below those that could have triggered a red flag.
Besides, he said the BOC command center, where Hilario was working as assistant to its head Gerardo Gambala, has the authority to issue an alert and should have done so.
Faeldon, Gambala and Maestrecampo are former mutinous soldiers belonging to the Magdalo group.
Quirino Rep. Dakila Cua, ways and means committee chairman, asked Customs officials why the drug shipment passed through the green or express lane even if certain parameters related to it were not encoded.
“For me, the fact that those parameters were absent should have raised a red flag, and the cargo should have been diverted to the red lane under your color selectivity system and should have been examined,” he said.
Faeldon later promised to tweak their system so that similar shipments could be sent to the red or yellow lanes for inspection, if such change would not go against the World Trade Organization agreement, to which the country is a signatory.
He said the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development recommended and funded the BOC selectivity scheme “to facilitate trade and importation and the release of shipments.”
He said it is impossible for Customs personnel to inspect 10,000 importations arriving at the country’s ports every day.
For his part, Alvarez said the Customs chief does not have the authority to issue an administrative order creating the command center headed by Gambala. “That authority belongs to the secretary of finance,” he said.
Minority Leader Suarez threatened to work for a “zero budget” for Customs officials for their “inefficiency.”
He said based on the Attrition Law, Faeldon should be replaced for his agency’s failure to meet his collection target.
On lookout bulletin
Meanwhile, the others covered by the DOJ’s lookout bulletin (LBO) are Kenneth Dong, the alleged middleman of Tan in the smuggling of the shabu from China; Fidel Lee, the arrested consignee of the shipment; Mark Ruben Taguba, private customs broker; Hilario, head of the Customs risk management office; and Taiwanese nationals Jhu Ming-Jyun and Chen Min who rented Tan’s warehouse.
“Considering the gravity of the offenses possibly committed, there is a strong possibility that the foregoing personalities may attempt to place themselves beyond the reach of the lawful processes of this department by leaving the country,” read the LBO.
“In light of the foregoing, the Commissioner, Bureau of Immigration is hereby ordered to instruct all immigration officers to be on the lookout/alert for the above-named individuals in the event that anymore of them pass through immigration counters in any of our international airports and/or seaports,” it read. – Edu Punay