Why only now?
Assistant Secretary Virginia Torres, the chief of the Land Transportation Office, is retiring at the end of the month. It is a sad commentary on her tenure at that high-profile agency that reaction to the news can mostly be summed up in a simple, stark question: Why only now?
A report in the Manila Times on Monday asserted that Torres had actually been asked to resign, by President Aquino. When reached by reporters, Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya confirmed that there had been a meeting between Torres and Mr. Aquino, but said Torres was retiring. “She has met up with the President and I also had the chance to meet with her after. She has volunteered to file for retirement since she is already eligible,” Abaya was quoted as saying in a text message.
(The report, written by the chair emeritus of the Times, Dante Ang, is remarkable not so much for the scoop as for the list of possible reasons included in it to explain the President’s reported lack of confidence in Torres.)
Torres has granted interviews, too. To dzRH, for instance, the controversial LTO chief said she was leaving with pride intact. “I had given my best. Hindi ako nalulungkot, hindi ako nagsisisi. Ako, taas-noong bababa (I am not sad, I have no regrets. I am stepping down with head held high).”
Unfortunately, Torres cannot cite a single outstanding achievement during her time at the LTO that would have justified all the controversy surrounding her. In terms of performance, her most glaring shortcoming has been the dramatic drop in the efficiency of the motor vehicle registration process in the three years she was at the helm. License plates became available only after several months. It reached a point where buyers of new vehicles were told to prepare their own temporary license plates by making large copies of the conduction stickers and sticking these where the license plates should be.
There were, to be sure, other factors at play, but registration is one of the LTO chief’s main responsibilities; that this state of affairs went on month after month, year after year, flashed a “broken window” signal amid all the bustling news about booming car sales. The government (in this case, the LTO) was not working.
Torres was a controversial figure even before her appointment to the LTO. Her record as a regional director based in Tarlac—the position where she reportedly became a shooting-range partner of the President’s—was stained by alleged falsification of a vehicle’s registration papers in 2009 (an accusation she has strongly denied). What made matters worse was her role in the attempted takeover by the Bonifacio Sumbilla faction of Stradcom, the LTO’s information technology provider, in December 2010.
The Department of Justice had even recommended her suspension, for the “neglect and incompetence” she displayed during the Stradcom incident. The display was quite literal; she was caught on closed-circuit television accompanying the Sumbilla faction. “Was it her neutrality, or was it her lack of it, that froze her into inaction and kept her from doing at the time what seemed so obvious to every responsible official holding a position like hers?” the DOJ said in its report.
It added the damning words: “The [DOJ’s fact-finding] committee believes that her inaction was deliberate. She could not have been that incompetent or negligent.”
On top of everything else, Torres was caught on video playing the slot machine at a casino, in violation of a 12-year-old order prohibiting government officials such as agency heads from playing in any casino.
In other words, there was sufficient reason for the President to seriously question Torres’ capability to run the LTO (or even his decision to appoint her as LTO chief in the first place). Torres became one of the faces behind the oft-repeated jibe that the President was too partial to friends, classmates, and shooting-range partners. To a citizenry seeking to take a new administration at its word, Torres’ appointment was puzzling. The mystery only deepened over the years: Where was the display of undisputed brilliance, the breakthrough performance, the outstanding example of “kayo-ang-boss-ko” public service, that could possibly explain the President’s vote of confidence in her?
Now that Torres is leaving, we can only hope that more of the nonperformers in the administration will also, and finally, “volunteer to file for retirement.”
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