Philippine Daily Inquirer
The resignation of Interior Undersecretary Rico E. Puno, tendered last Friday and accepted on Monday, after he had met with President Aquino, is long overdue. On the President’s much-ballyhooed tuwid na daan, or straight path, Puno was perceived in unflattering metaphorical terms: either as an obstacle on the way or a crook in the road.
Is this unfair? Puno’s daughter, in an emotional blog post, certainly thought that her father was the victim of a bum rap; she wrote that media reports had unfairly described as a raid Puno’s attempt to enter the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo’s condominium unit the day after his plane crashed in the waters off Masbate.
But this alleged raid is not the reason—or at least it doesn’t appear so—why the President finally accepted Puno’s resignation. (It was at least his second offer to resign, in two years of government service.) Rather, it was the accumulation of controversies, large and small, that finally did it.
In the first place, Puno’s puzzling decision to keep silent forced the President himself to yet again defend his long-time friend, all the way from an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Russia—an unusual set of circumstances that clearly reduces Mr. Aquino’s political capital.
Second, the President had already appointed a replacement for Robredo, his own running mate Mar Roxas, who, immediately after he was introduced to the press, announced that Mr. Aquino had given him complete discretion in the running of the Department of the Interior and Local Government. The sad context for this announcement was the reality with which Robredo struggled for two years: the President had assigned operational control of the Philippine National Police not to him but to Puno. (In contrast, Roxas’ replacement at the Department of Transportation and Communications, Rep. Joseph Abaya, made a point of saying, at the same news briefing, that he would retain Roxas’ team at the DOTC.)
But instead of heeding the President’s new marching orders, Puno stayed put, and his friend, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., decided to fight a rear guard action: Ochoa told reporters that Puno remained undersecretary at the DILG. Surely it was only a matter of time before Mr. Aquino’s word to Roxas would be put to the test; did Ochoa, Puno and other members of the so-called Samar faction in the administration think they could force the President to renege on such a high-stakes promise? That Puno did not immediately offer his resignation after the Roxas appointment was another hit to Mr. Aquino’s credibility.
Third, the arms sale controversy that now haunts Puno raises urgent questions about his integrity, and also about his relationship with the President. While the PNP did not proceed with the proposed purchase in two batches of M4 assault rifles, in part because Robredo stopped the bidding process, Puno has some explaining to do. Why did he compromise his position by joining the inspection trip to the Israeli manufacturer (a decision that prompted a DILG report to raise possible conflict-of-interest questions), and why didn’t he say anything about the gross markup in the rifle’s price? It took the President himself, searching on Google, to discover that the rifles priced at P80,000 could be obtained for P40,000. This sequence of events alone tests the depths of Puno’s loyalty to the President’s anticorruption agenda.
Fourth, the scandals that hounded Puno in his early months in office continue to bite at his heels: His inept handling of the Luneta hostage tragedy in 2010 gave the Aquino administration its first serious governance crisis, but have we heard Puno explain the matter with any real sense of responsibility and remorse? His failure to crack down on jueteng, symbolized by his off-hand revelation that operatives of the illegal numbers game had sent feelers for a possible meeting and he did nothing, remains a stain on the administration’s record. These scandals have only reinforced one strain of criticism leveled at the President: that he favors his close friends, such as Jose Mejia at the Judicial and Bar Council, or Virginia Torres at the Land Transportation Office, or Puno himself, despite their perceived lack of preparation and/or incompetence.
Puno’s resignation, Palace spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said on Monday, showed that the President does not coddle his friends. But we wonder: Doesn’t two years in office qualify as coddling?
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