What’s the real score on the raging tiff between Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon and some legislators led by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez? Ostensibly it’s about a shipment of P6.4 billion worth of shabu (crystal meth) from China that the Bureau of Customs released without inspection last May 23 and apprehended three days later in Valenzuela. Members of the House are seeking explanations to that breach, and have virtually asked for Faeldon’s head, saying his incompetence had tainted President Duterte’s war on drugs.
But a subsequent sideshow in the House hearing would steer the controversy to more complex territory involving turf, patronage and influence-peddling. When Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas—in a seeming attempt to get back at Faeldon in some way—berated the commissioner’s chief of staff, Mandy Anderson, for a Facebook post by her that called Alvarez an “imbecile,” the young lawyer fought back by revealing that the root of the House’s anger was Faeldon’s pointed refusal to entertain certain congressmen’s penchant for trying to influence the appointment and promotion of Customs personnel.
Specifically, Alvarez had pushed for the promotion of one Sandy Sacluti, a Customs officer that the Speaker later said he did not know personally and described as “overqualified.” Anderson had claimed that when Faeldon’s office turned down the request after finding Sacluti unqualified for the position, it was the beginning of the squeeze that is now being applied on their bureau.
The congressmen are unapologetic, publicly demanding to know what is wrong in pushing for the promotion of certain people in government offices when they are “representatives of the people” that need to be listened to. Conveniently left out of the argument, of course, is the fact that they were elected as the people’s representatives to make laws, and not to serve as an employment agency for their preferred minions in the bureaucracy. Faeldon is correct to point out the basic danger in that system of patronage: “They want me to influence the promotion board so that their people here would be promoted… That is a form of corruption. Their people are here to protect the interests of their bosses.”
Alvarez et al. have offered another disingenuous defense—that their requests are merely recommendatory, and that the Bureau of Customs has the final say on whether to accede to such requests or not. But that argument naively assumes that the public neither understands nor cares about the coercive authority deriving from the House members’ immense power of the purse over every department and bureau in the government. Refuse to kowtow to their demands, as Faeldon’s current straits seem to illustrate, and prepare to pay dearly.
This is not to say that Customs is itself blameless. Long among the most notoriously corrupt of government agencies, it doesn’t help its image any that a P6.4-billion drug shipment would elude its scrutiny. This breach is unacceptable and deserves to be investigated thoroughly, and command responsibility requires that the buck ultimately stop with Faeldon. The circumstances are still in dispute: The now-suspended risk management officer Larribert Hilario, blamed for failing to flag the shipment, has surfaced to deny he was at fault. He said he had actually requested an alert order on the shipment, but was ignored by the import assessment officer, Milo Maestrecampo. Director Maestrecampo has yet to be heard from at this point.
Was it a case of simple botched procedures, or a “business as usual” practice that got caught this time? One can take one’s pick of the more plausible scenario. But as accusations continue to be exchanged by the two camps, the truth that emerges is that nothing is cut-and-dried in this hydra-headed controversy. The corruption at Customs is shameful; so is the lawmakers’ influence-peddling, which aggravates the rot.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.