Can Customs be cleaned up?
How can Commissioner Ruffy Biazon get anything done when the courts stop him? Whose side is the judiciary on? Everyone, but everyone, agrees that the Bureau of Customs is the most corrupt government agency. Cleaning it up requires dramatic, courageous action. The courts should keep their hands off.
You can’t reform a system if you don’t start at the top, as President Aquino has shown. He came into power with a clean image, of an honest man wanting to clean up society. It got him into power, as that’s what the people wanted. Yet within months the courts stepped in and stopped him. He wanted to establish a Truth Commission to look into suspected corruption in the Arroyo administration. The courts stopped him on the incredible statement that it was singling out one administration. Of course it was. Joseph Estrada had already been found guilty, and convicted. There were no accusations against Fidel Ramos. The cases against the Marcoses have been in court for more than two decades—with no convictions. When a crime is committed you go after the suspects, not the whole populace.
Now they are trying to block Biazon’s efforts to clean up Customs. What Biazon is fighting is a long-entrenched system where everyone “benefits.” Here’s an example I was given: To clear a container, the collector gets P5,000; the section heads, P3,000 each; the assessor, P3,000; accreditation, another P3,000; the BOC police, two times P5,000; the legal officers, P5,000. And P3,000 to the X-ray machine department. Undoubtedly there are honest people in Customs, but there are far too many who aren’t.
When Biazon tried to move 27 collectors to another office under the Department of Finance, with no loss in seniority, 15 of the collectors sought a temporary restraining order from the Manila Regional Trial Court—and the RTC granted it!
The courts also intervened with a permanent injunction against an order Biazon had issued to implement an automation strategy that would close down a unit that was to be rendered obsolete by automation. Its personnel were to be transferred to other posts, but they went to court claiming loss of security of tenure. The court decided in their favor. How being given another job of equal seniority can be considered loss of security of tenure, I have no idea.
As the President said last June in his State of the Nation Address: “And here we have the Bureau of Customs, whose personnel are trying to outdo each other’s incompetence. Instead of collecting the proper taxes and preventing contraband from entering the country, they are heedlessly permitting the smuggling of goods, and even drugs, arms, and other items of a similar nature into our territory… Where do these people get the gall? Such practices have no place in government.”
The simplest solution is to close Customs down, and start fresh. But the courts would have a field day with that one. It would be unfair to the honest ones, too. A solution would be to move all BOC employees to other government agencies at the same service level they are now, but where there’s no operation where money can be made. The honest ones lose nothing, the dishonest ones only their criminal revenues.
Then government personnel of known probity can be moved in. I’d significantly increase their salaries. I’d do that for all government employees, actually. Their salaries should equal what the private sector pays. Janet Napoles has shown us that the government has enough money. We might not only reduce temptations but also attract more competent and experienced people. You get what you pay for.
One solution to minimize opportunities for corruption is full computerization. It prevents contact between the importer and Customs personnel. But the effort to computerize the BOC clearance system has been stymied by a lower court’s TRO on complaints by a disqualified bidder. This disqualified bidder filed claims for damages when the BOC awarded the contract to the winning bidder. How on earth can the courts take cognizance of the claims of a disqualified, not just losing, bidder?
What must be done with urgency is to fully computerize all operations. At present there are three separate systems for different functions, and hard copies of documents are still needed, defeating the benefit of computerization. One system was even sabotaged by the employees, causing its failure, because they were losing personal revenues. This was fixed when Biazon came into office.
With the Asean Economic Community coming in 2015, most duties will go anyway, so the need for a full Bureau of Customs will be less needed. A task force to catch smugglers of illegal or banned products can do it.
However, I give this little chance of happening. A cleanup is the best that can be done. But there are some other things that can be done. One I like is preinspection, or inspecting goods at the country of export; you can’t get a bribe over there. This was done by SGS during the Ramos administration, but it was stopped when Estrada took office because it was “too expensive.” Too expensive? What do they think smuggling and bribery are costing the economy? Whatever it costs preinspection is cheap.
What, if anything, happens at the Bureau of Customs will be a major test case fascinating to watch. If the President can force real changes at the BOC, other agencies may follow. And that would be a great legacy for his administration. But it needs the support of the courts. I appeal to Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno: If you are serious about judicial reform, stop accepting obvious nuisance cases. Put society first. Give the Customs commissioner the freedom to reform the government’s most corrupt agency.
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