How do you solve a problem like Rico E. Puno? The senior undersecretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government, a close personal friend of President Aquino’s, gained national notoriety barely two months into the new administration’s term when it became known during the unfortunate Luneta hostage crisis in August 2010 that he had been given control of the Philippine National Police—an unusual arrangement that effectively halved the scope of responsibilities of the new DILG head, the highly regarded reform-oriented Magsaysay awardee, Jesse Robredo.
Two years later, Puno is in the news again, after it transpired—again, the information trickled out despite a silence he seemed determined to keep—that he had tried to gain entry into Robredo’s Quezon City condominium unit, the day after the interior secretary’s plane crashed in the waters off Masbate. It had to take a statement from the President himself, issued in the middle of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Vladivostok, to place Puno’s action in some perspective.
But even President Aquino’s disclosure that he had ordered Puno, second in command to Robredo at the DILG, to effect a “lockdown” of Robredo’s office in order to secure sensitive documents—a decision he reached, he said, after Justice Secretary Leila de Lima reminded him the first night Robredo went missing—raises more questions about Puno’s actuations. Why did he, with three others, try to enter the secretary’s private quarters?
Again, it was the President, all the way in Russia, who ended up offering a possible justification: “Well, he probably thought there were also some documents there that needed to be secured.”
To have the President himself make excuses for you, while you studiously avoid the probing media: That is a very cozy work arrangement Puno has. We wonder, What is it exactly that recommends him to President Aquino’s good graces?
This much we know; almost every time Puno surfaces in media reports, it is seemingly to test either the meaning or the outer limits of the tuwid na daan, the straight and narrow path the second Aquino presidency is committed to.
Item: Soon after his appointment to the DILG, Puno received feelers from operators of jueteng, the lucrative illegal numbers game that continues to be a major source of corruption, especially of police officers and local government officials. He said they wanted a meeting, and he turned them down. They only wanted to take advantage of my closeness to the President, he said at the time.
And that was it. There was no attempt to send a strong message to the operators, no attempt to root out the game’s coddlers in the national police force, no attempt to advance the anticorruption agenda of the President he is famously close to.
Item: According to a DILG report already widely circulating online, Puno may have compromised the department when he accepted an invitation to visit an Israeli supplier whose Philippine partner turned out to be the lone bidder in a proposed purchase of assault rifles. The report raised the prospect of impropriety in clear terms (albeit with a dangling modifier): “Being an observer and resource person of the on-going PNP NHQ bidding, such action has possible conflict of interest in the contract being bid out and might impair the integrity of the bidding process.”
The proposed purchase of assault rifles has since been suspended.
Item. Agham party-list Rep. Angelo Palmones criticized Puno for approving a firearms deal worth nearly P1 billion on Aug. 31—the same day the President’s running mate, Secretary Mar Roxas, was appointed to head the DILG. Palmones, who together with another congressman had already criticized the bidding process involved in the proposed purchase of some 60,000 pistols, said he thought Puno’s timing was suspect; even assuming that the deal was in fact aboveboard, then it could have waited for Roxas’ signature, he said. Why the rush?
The real background to the continuing saga of Rico E. Puno, of course, lies in the rivalry that continues to divide the Aquino administration, between the “Balay” faction led by Roxas, and the “Samar” faction led by Vice President Jejomar Binay (who is leading an opposition Senate slate in next year’s elections) and symbolized by the untouchable Puno. How President Aquino will handle his controversial friend may depend on what he thinks of this rivalry.