Administration Senator Francis Escudero has called for a probe on the alleged practice by some "powerful forces," supposedly including senators, of meddling in the affairs of the Bureau of Customs (BOC).
In filing Senate Resolution No. 124, Escudero challenged his fellow senators to "weed out thieves" in the BOC, which "has long been perceived as the most corrupt agency in the government."
"This political patronage in the bureau's system is a loud whisper that cannot and should not be ignored anymore. It has acculturated the entire agency, even its own officials already admitted to its existence. We in Congress should police our own ranks. Who else will look into this if we ourselves turn our eyes away from it?" Escudero said in a statement.
At a separate briefing, Escudero said he plans to compel Custom officials to identify the senators who are supposedly meddling with the affairs of their agency during the proposed hearing.
"Ang hirap kasi sa mga opisyal magbabanggit ng mga atake sa mga miyembro ng Kongreso at Senado tapos hindi naman handang pangalanan. Kesyo tinatawagan daw sila ng mga senador, lumalabas tuloy parang kaming lahat tumatawag sa kanila para sa release ng shipments. Magandang maliwanag at malaman kung sino-sino ba ang tumatawag," he said.
He added that he is not keen on just holding an executive session with Customs officials.
"Ang gusto namin, at least, malinis ang pangalan ng institusyon mismo at hindi iyong lumalabas ngayon na ang tingin, kapag nakakakita ng senador o congressman, ah, iyan ang mga tumatawag sa Customs para marelease ang shipments.," Escudero said.
Escudero filed his resolution based on statements made by Customs chief Ruffy Biazon and deputy Customs commissioner Danilo Lim of a supposed "padrino system" in the agency.
In an interview over radio dzMM last week, Lim said "powerful" forces were interfering with the BOC's conduct of business.
In a separate interview aired over the same radio station, Customs Deputy Commissioner Juan Lorenzo Tañada said that some senators, congressmen and relatives of high officials are interfering with the BOC's conduct of business.
Both Lim and Tañada did not name the government officials allegedly interfering with the Customs operations. They also submitted tendered their resignations from their respective posts, but Malacañang has yet to act on their resignations.
District collectors leave posts
Biazon, meanwhile, has asked all 17 district collectors in the country to leave their posts in an effort to overhaul the bureau.
As of Monday night, 15 of 17 had submitted their letter relinquishing their assignments or designation. Only officials from the Port of Iloilo and Ninoy Aquino International Aiport (NAIA) have yet to submit their respective letters.
Interviewed by phone, Biazon said those who failed to submit a letter of relinquishment would likely to be replaced.
"May authority ako to transfer them to a different department," he told GMA News Online when asked about the other officials who failed to submit letters of relinquishment.
Biazon also said that aside from the 15 districts collectors, 30 subport collectors have also resigned."
"For sure, marami pang [resignation] sa susunod," he added.
Biazon's order came days after President Benigno Aquino III, in his fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA), castigated the BOC for supposedly failing to address the rampant problem of smuggling in the country.
Aquino's scathing remarks against the BOC prompted Biazon, Lim and Customs deputy commissioner Juan Lorenzo Tañada to tender their respective resignations. Aquino has rejected Biazon's resignation, but has yet to decide on Lim's and Tañada's.
Biazon said before accepting the district collectors' resignations, he would first evaluate their performance and determine if they would indeed need to leave their posts.
"May ibang I might retain where they are," he said. "Kung maayos naman ang evaluation, may possibility they will be retained."
Collectors who will not be retained may be transferred to lesser ports or may be placed on "floating status."
"As soon as they leave, they will be immediately replaced as soon as possible, wala pang exact date," Biazon said.
When asked why he focused on collectors, Biazon said: "Significant 'yung role nila kasi sila 'yung heads ng mga operating unit for their own turfs."
"It starts with them, but it definitely does not stop with them," he added.
Meanwhile, a Manila Times report identified Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. as two of these officials allegedly involved in the BOC's "padrino system."
Belmonte and deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte, on Ochoa's behalf, categorically denied this report. Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile, for his part, categorically said he has not made calls to any official in the BOC.
"I never called anyone in the Bureau of Customs. You can ask and everyone of the people there," Enrile said in a separate interview on Tuesday.
Escudero proposed that the probe be handled by the Senate blue ribbon commitee, as well as the finance and ways and means panels.
Senator Teofisto Guingona III, who chairs the blue ribbon committee, said the panel has no plans so far to probe controversies at the BOC.
"Remember this is a committee and I would like to consult members of the committee first. Pero sa dami ng balita ngayon, I'm sure magiging busy kami," Guingona said in a separate interview. — Andreo Calonzo and Amanda Fernandez/RSJ/KBK, GMA News