A gathering storm
Charges and countercharges of corruption are swirling about the Bureau of Customs, like a gathering thunderstorm; the largest cloud involves the mystery of the P6.4-billion shipment of “shabu,” which has sucked the name of President Duterte’s own son into the vortex. But Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s privilege speech on Wednesday painted a dire portrait of the systemic corruption at the agency, the second largest source of government revenue, going all the way up to the recently replaced Customs commissioner, Nicanor Faeldon. Faeldon responded the following day, with a news conference that began with encomiums to Lacson’s integrity and ended with accusations that Lacson’s own son and namesake smuggled billions of pesos worth of
cement into the country.
These accusations need to be investigated. Lacson named specific individuals who were either “big players” at Customs (suggesting that they ran smuggling syndicates) or officials at the agency; it is only right that they be given the chance to clear their name, if they can, at the Senate investigation Lacson is seeking. Faeldon, too, needs the same opportunity, under oath. In his privilege speech, Lacson relayed “loud whispers in the four corners of the Bureau of Customs compound” that Faeldon had received a P100-million “pasalubong” or welcome gift upon his appointment as Customs chief. This is multiple hearsay on Lacson’s part, and would not be given credence in a court of law, but unfortunately for Faeldon he has been brought before the court of public opinion, and he has no choice but to prove his innocence (rather than for his accuser to prove his guilt).
At the same time, Faeldon’s counterattack against Lacson was carefully executed; it cannot be dismissed outright. It is true, as many people immediately pointed out, that the alleged smuggling done by Panfilo Lacson Jr. happened a year ago; why did Faeldon wait until after a privilege speech attacking him in the Senate before he went public with the information? Lacson wasted no time responding to Faeldon’s charges,
immediately meeting the press after the news broke and denying that he was involved in his son’s company and that the company did
anything wrong. But Faeldon had enough of both the company’s details and quotable quotes to ensure that his countercharge against Lacson would gain traction. At one point during his news conference, he even addressed the senator directly: “Ngayon yung sinasabi ni Senator Lacson na may mga player, tanungin ko to sa ’yo Senator Ping Lacson: Player ka ba?” (Now about what Senator Lacson is saying about there being players; let me ask you this, Senator Ping Lacson: Are you a player, too?)
It is incumbent on the Senate, through its primary accountability mechanism, the blue ribbon committee, to investigate these charges and countercharges. Lacson provided not only names but also a rate card, as it were, of “tara” or grease money. This kind of detail suggests that Lacson’s sources may know the true scope and depth of corruption in the bureau; it demands an investigation.
By the exact same token, Faeldon’s accusations against Lacson and his son need to be thoroughly vetted. Faeldon provided a level of detail that also requires a closer examination.
But these charges and countercharges, prompted by the inquiry into the P6.4-billion shabu smuggling and by the disclosures of Customs broker Mark Taguba, must not be allowed to stop the original investigation. The committee has already caught some of the witnesses in revealing lies or shadings of the truth; Taguba’s cautious testimony has already suggested that Davao City Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte may be implicated in possible and systematic wrongdoing; the direct bearing of the smuggling of shabu on President Duterte’s signature campaign against illegal drugs cannot be denied. The inquiry must continue, if only to allow those implicated, by their own words or by those of others, to clear their name.
But now it will have to proceed with the information from both Lacson and Faeldon—and let the accumulating rains fall where they will.
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