Double standard in corruption drive

By Val G. Abelgas

AT THE START of his presidency, President Duterte warned government officials to shape-up or he would fire them at the slightest hint of corruption. Indeed, Duterte has fired several bureaucrats and even his own appointees for alleged involvement in corruption scandals or for other suspected shenanigans.

But in the past week, serious doubts were raised on the President’s vow to curb corruption after the Department of Justice dismissed all charges against Customs Commissioner Nick Faeldon and several other Customs officials and employees accused of involvement in the illegal entry of P6.4-billion shabu into the country and of accepting bribes.

Also cleared of any role in the shabu smuggling were 11 other Customs officials and six NBI officials who were tagged by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) as those responsible for the release of the illegal shipment, and six officers of the Hong Fei Logistics, which owns the warehouse where the 600 kilograms of shabu were seized.

Only the whistleblower and principal witness in the committee hearings conducted by both the Senate and the House, customs broker Mark Tabuba II, and nine other private individuals remained charged in the case.

The charges were not only dropped, Duterte immediately re-appointed two senior Customs officials who had resigned at the height of the shabu scandal. Named back to their positions were Ariel Nepomuceno and Teddy Raval as customs deputy commissioners. Nepomuceno and Raval were among the BOC officials named by Sen. Panfilo Lacson as among those recipients of “tara” or payola (bribes) at the agency.

Earlier this month, Duterte appointed two senior Customs officials who resigned at the height of the shabu scandal to other key positions in the Department of Transportation. Deputy Customs Commissioner Gerardo Gambala was named security director of the DOTr while Customs Director Milo Maestrecampo, who was one of those recommended charged by the Senate committee, was appointed assistant director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP).

Of course, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, Duterte’s fiercest critic, was adamant. “Kapag mga mahihirap, patay agad. Pero kapag alagad ni Duterte, abswelto sa kaso,” Trillanes said, referring to how policemen would execute poor shabu users without the benefit of a court hearing while Duterte allies are casually cleared despite a lengthy congressional hearing, the testimonies of several witnesses, and a preponderance of evidence.

Trillanes cited the case of PNP Superintendent Marvin Marcos, who was recommended by the Senate to be charged with the murder of Albuera, Leyte Mayor Rolando Espinosa Jr., but the Department of Justice downgraded to case to homicide, enabling Marcos to post bail for his freedom and return to the PNP with a promise of promotion to boot.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan, president of the opposition Liberal Party, said he saw a pattern in the dismissal. “May pattern dito. Pagka kakampi pinapalusot. Similar sa Albuera mayor killing sinabi ng senado murder pero pagdating sa DOJ downgraded,” Pangilinan said.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson was just as shocked and angered by the dismissal. “Many among us who participated and witnessed the Senate and the lower house hearings on the smuggled P6.4B shabu shipment that passed through our country’s customs house under the noses of those tasked to check on smuggling are shocked and angered by the dismissal of the case against all the BOC personnel,” Lacson said, adding that it was “unimaginable, if not impossible” that the drug shipment would reach its destination in Valenzuela City from China, without the participation and complicity of the BOC personnel involved.

Even Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, head of Duterte’s party PDP-Laban Party, questioned the dismissal. “Only those charged were private citizens. How did that happen since the case involves 600 kilos? It is hard to believe that this happened without the cooperation from inside,” he said in vernacular. Pimentel asked Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre III to explain the dismissal.

The fact that Duterte’s son, Davao City Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte, and a Davao City councilor have been identified by Taguba as among those involved in the transaction and other shady deals in the Customs bureau makes the dismissal of the case against all Customs and NBI officials accused of involvement in the case, the appointment of the two resigned Customs officials involved in the case to new positions, and the immediate re-appointment of two senior Customs officials even more suspicious.

While Duterte has repeatedly warned and has actually fired several government officials and employees on mere hints of corruption, here are Customs and NBI officials who have actually been indicted before the justice department, recommended to be charged by the Senate, and positively identified by a customs broker involved in the deal, being handily cleared by the justice department because the PDEA allegedly did not present enough evidence to warrant the filing of charges.

But what happened to all the hours and days spent by the Senate panel interrogating witnesses and presenting evidence? This case is even more solid than the one Aguirre filed against Sen. Leila de Lima, which was based on mere hearsay from convicted criminals. And yet De Lima has been languishing in jail for more than a year while those Customs officials and private individuals responsible for the entry of 600 kilos of shabu can all go back to their jobs as if nothing happened.

In the early days of his presidency, Duterte singled out the Bureau of Customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue as the prime targets in his supposed campaign against corruption, and also vowed to eradicate the drug problem in the country, both of which he described as wreaking havoc to the country.

The P6.4-billion shabu smuggling scandal was his best opportunity to prove that he was sincere about his anti-corruption and anti-drug campaign and yet, he is allowing the perpetrators to go scot-free. Instead, the Duterte administration is now telling the whole world that in the Philippines, it does not pay to expose corruption, especially if the ones involved were his relatives and allies.

And I thought the double standard of justice under the administration of President Noynoy Aquino was over. Apparently, it has only gotten even more obvious that there is a different kind of justice for critics and non-essentials like the poor drug users, and another kind for the friends, families, and allies.

So what happened to all those promises of change, and of building a corruption and drug-free country?