The Bureau of Customs headed by Commissioner Ruffy Biazon was among the government agencies that received a tongue-lashing from President Aquino in his State of the Nation Address before Congress the other day. The BOC repeatedly falls short of its collection targets, and has been unable to stop smuggling. Whenever Biazon is asked by the press what he plans to do to increase collections, stop smuggling, and curb corruption in the bureau, he answers: “computerization.”
With computerization, Biazon says, there will be no contact between the importer and customs employees. No paper work. Everything will be by computer. Aside from curbing corruption, transactions in the BOC will be quick. Fixers will be put out of business. And collections will increase.
One reason for the drop in collections, aside from corruption, is that more and more duty-free treaties between the Philippines and other countries are being implemented. Because of this, although imports increase, tariff collections decrease. Much of the recent imports are duty-free.
Going back to computerization, it has started at the BOC and was planned for completion next year were it not for a Manila regional trial court judge who stopped the award of the computerization contract to the winning bidder.
Last March, after a bidding process which was strictly supervised by the BOC bids and awards committee and which was pronounced by Biazon himself as thorough and transparent, the Integrated Philippine Customs System (IPCS) was awarded to the joint venture of Webb Fontaine and Global Resource for Outsource Workers (Grow) Inc.
A notice to proceed was issued and the operation to modernize the BOC IT system began.
But less than two weeks ago, Judge Armando Yanga issued a temporary restraining order on the award of the P500-million contract to the winning bidder, “until the hearing of the petition for a preliminary injunction” filed by the losing bidder, Omniprime Marketing Inc. represented by its president, Annabelle Margaroli.
The judge claimed that the petitioner had succeeded in presenting evidence that it may suffer irreparable injury if the deal were to be awarded to Webb Fontaine and Grow.
Omniprime sought to annul the notice of award to Webb Fontaine, claiming that the latter failed to comply with bidding requirements because it submitted papers in which the signature of the notary public had been forged.
Last week, Webb Fontaine filed an urgent motion to dissolve the TRO.
Lawyers would find Judge Yanga’s reasoning interesting. He said Omniprime would suffer irreparable injury from the continuation of the act sought to be enjoined.
However, the BOC has already awarded the contract to the joint venture and issued a notice to proceed. The joint venture has begun its contractual obligations and was in fact already operating before Omniprime filed its petition.
Thus, it is the joint venture of Webb Fontaine and Grow that will suffer irreparable injury from this TRO, not Omniprime.
Interestingly, Omniprime admitted in its petition that it was disqualified after the technical proposals of the three bidders were opened and examined. Its disqualification simply means that it neither acquired nor was it vested with any right over the IPCS project.
Without a clear legal right to be protected, then there can be no violation of any right to speak of for Omniprime.
Biazon is understandably upset. In interviews with the media, he insists that the BOC computerization program is aboveboard, and that the complaint filed by Margaroli stemmed from a personal vendetta against Webb Fontaine.
He says he questioned Omniprime’s bid after he discovered that the company failed to participate in the bidding process for lack of some required documents.
According to Biazon, Omniprime was a partner of the local subsidiary of Webb Fontaine in a previous maintenance contract with the BOC. But Webb Fontaine dropped Omniprime and partnered with Grow for the new computerization project.
“They do not seem to get along as business partners, so they parted ways and Webb Fontaine ended up partnering with Grow,” Biazon says, adding that there were no irregularities in the bidding last March as legal and proper procedures were thoroughly and transparently followed.
Biazon also says he will respect the TRO, but warns that delay in implementing the computerization project can adversely affect revenue collections. He says there is no legal question as to the necessity and importance of the project that is envisioned to increase collections and help rid the BOC of illegal transactions.
Why the haste in issuing a TRO to preserve the status quo? The petition was filed only last July 4, and the TRO was granted six days later (July 10).
Judge Yanga is a pairing judge to RTC Judge Josefina Siscar of Branch 55, who was on leave when the petition was filed. Judge Yanga is the judge of Branch 173.
A TRO to preserve the status quo is clearly a ploy “by insidious forces within the BOC to delay a government project aimed at cleaning and modernizing the corrupt system in the [bureau],” Biazon says.
Last year, the Supreme Court warned the lower courts from loosely granting TROs, saying the public has grown suspicious of judges issuing such orders.
Has the high court’s warning fallen on deaf ears?