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Editorial

Custom-made mess

/ 12:21 AM April 27, 2015

BY ALL accounts—even those of grumblers on the sidelines—John Philip Sevilla was a professional who cleaned up the Bureau of Customs and improved the performance of the government’s second-largest revenue-earning agency. It was news, therefore, when he announced his resignation as commissioner of the bureau on Thursday, just three days after denying the swirling rumors that he was quitting. What was even more startling was the reason he gave for resigning.

There was no calibrated diplomatic language to conceal the real reason to the general public, no careful nuancing to avoid offending the powers that be. A young man with a reputation for straight shooting, Sevilla shot straight: He said he quit because of mounting political pressure.

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“Politics is in the atmosphere. I could feel strongly [that] political factors are moving in the background,” he told reporters. “In the past months, it was increasingly becoming difficult. In the coming months, it will probably be impossible to [withstand the political pressure]. I am saddened that I could not finish what I had started.”

In particular, Sevilla cited pressure from the politically influential religious group Iglesia ni Cristo to appoint an unqualified candidate to a sensitive position. He did qualify his assertion. “Truth to tell, I find it hard to believe that that is what the Iglesia ni Cristo wants, that the Iglesia ni Cristo is pushing for someone in the Customs. I have a friend who is a member of the Iglesia ni Cristo. I have a relative who is a member of Iglesia ni Cristo. I can’t really imagine that the Iglesia ni Cristo would lobby for government appointments.”

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But Sevilla is also not naive. “It’s clear to me that whoever is pushing his appointment is powerful. There’s a strong push for the promotion of their men to very powerful positions here at the Customs. When these things happen, I become suspicious of their motives.”

“His appointment.” That detail bears emphasis, because it is the root of the issue. Sevilla is referring to lawyer Teddy Sandy S. Raval, who heads the bureau’s intellectual property rights division and is widely reputed within the agency to be the Iglesia ni Cristo’s candidate for the position of chief of enforcement and security services (ESS).

“I objected to that appointment,” Sevilla said. “I said, ‘Look, I know that’s within the powers of the President, but I don’t agree that it’s a good idea.” An Inquirer source said Raval was not qualified “mainly because he has no military or police intelligence background,” and because he has a certain reputation. Despite Sevilla’s objections, and those of the so-called reform group within Customs, Malacañang still insisted.

“Very recently, I learned of the plan to go ahead with the appointment of Attorney Raval as director of ESS,” Sevilla said at the Thursday news conference. That must have been the last straw. To continue the efficiency and anticorruption reforms in Customs, a commissioner must have an enforcement official he can fully trust; for Malacañang to insist on appointing someone the commissioner objected to is tantamount to a withdrawal of confidence in the commissioner. Perhaps because the Aquino administration is now used to its allies refusing to leave office despite pending corruption cases or obvious conflicts of interest, it did not expect Sevilla to resign despite the withdrawal of support.

But Sevilla tendered his resignation to President Aquino on Wednesday—and blew the lid open.

The simple assertion that politics is involved in the impending appointment of a new chief enforcement official in Customs is a challenge to the Aquino administration. Does it still believe in its “daang matuwid” (straight path) policy of governance? The straight path does not only mean not taking bribes; it also means serving the public interest, not the much narrower interest of a specific group.

Sevilla has done an impressive job at Customs; too bad his reward from Malacañang is a knife in the back.

At least he was able to open the Pandora’s box of election-related political pressure: Let an ungrateful administration deal with the pestilences released.

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TAGS: Bureau of Customs, Iglesia Ni Cristo, John Philip Sevilla, nation, news
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