[Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO]

MANILA, APRIL 15, 2013 (INQUIRER) By Jerry E. Esplanada - Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon warned on Monday “personalities and vested interest groups” behind a demolition job against him that “I’m watching you. You won’t get away with it.”

But the customs chief, who just returned from an official trip to Panama City, did not identify his detractors.

He told a news conference at the Bureau of Customs headquarters in Manila that “there really are attempts to destabilize the bureau from various directions.”

“Clearly, may gumagalaw (there are those making a move)… I’ve been hearing the loudest whispers about the people involved (in a smear campaign). Some of them apparently stand to lose due to the ongoing reforms at the bureau. Some want me out. Others want to replace me,” Biazon said.

He said he would deal with these people. “If interested, let’s sit down and talk with the President. If you succeed in convincing him to replace me, I’m willing to quit my post.”

Customs insiders identified one of the alleged operators behind the demolition job against Biazon but asked the Philippine Daily Inquirer not to print his full name.

“It’s Mr. G… he belongs to a political clan in San Carlos City, Pangasinan,” said the source.

On Sunday, Biazon told Inquirer there was a concerted effort to discredit him.

“I’ve been in politics long enough to know when a demolition job is being done… I know I have ruffled the feathers of enough people with interests to give them a motive to do these attacks,” he said.

But Biazon said he was not quitting.

“When I accepted this job, one of the realities that I accepted was that I would be the target of vicious attacks precisely because this job entails going against people who will try to bring the commissioner down because they want the position for themselves,” he said.

Some BOC old-timers, however, opined that Biazon’s hands were tied, saying “he can’t push for all the reforms he believes would convert the bureau into a modern customs administration, as well as fight corruption.”

The customs chief, they said, “has to deal with, among others, several factions in the bureau,” including those allegedly identified with Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. and Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima.

“These groups have the power to hire and fire people at customs. That’s common knowledge here at the bureau,” said a source.

Sought for comment, Biazon said the BOC “should be insulated from political patronage and influence with the passage of a law banning the endorsement or recommendation by persons of influence in the hiring or promotion of customs personnel.”

He disclosed that a number of customs officials were endorsed by some politicians.

Last week, Malacañang said it was standing by Biazon despite the alleged massive smuggling of petroleum products.

Asked if Biazon continued to enjoy the trust of President Aquino, Lacierda said: “For now, of course, yes. Yes.”

A top Palace official said the President would deal with Biazon after the May elections.

But Liberal Party (LP) allies of Biazon said improvements in the bureau’s services, not his resignation, should be done to address smuggling.

LP chair Sen. Francis Pangilinan said the prosecution and punishment of smugglers “is what will help solve the Philippines’ multi-billion peso smuggling problem. Unless the smugglers are punished, any revamp will fall short of truly solving the problem.”

Biazon said the bureau needed a complete overhaul.

He pointed out that the mere replacement of people involved in the BOC’s Run After the Smugglers campaign, while necessary and significant, would not be the ultimate solution.

“A change in the system and the environment needs to happen, including a paradigm shift in how we view the role of the Bureau of Customs, not just in revenue collection and border security, but in trade facilitation,” he said.

He pointed out that the problem of oil smuggling did not just crop up during his tenure as customs commissioner the past 18 months or in the Aquino administration from mid-2010 to the present.

“It is a problem that hounds every customs administration, not just in the Philippines but around the world. Even the most technologically advanced customs unit faces the same problem. The only difference is the magnitude of the problem and the dynamics of the system prevailing in each country. But sometimes, it is also a matter of perception by the sectors concerned,” Biazon added.

Meanwhile, Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya brushed off as “part of public service” the heat the agency has been getting from recent allegations that several of Department of Transportation and Communications key officials were involved in oil smuggling.

Former Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Eduardo Oban Jr., who was recently appointed an undersecretary at the DOTC, had reportedly helped local oil firms smuggle billions of pesos worth of fuel into the country.

Oban is on leave from the DOTC starting April 1 to last six months. He did not specify his reason for going on leave.

“There was no talk of smuggling when he went on leave. There is nothing to investigate at DOTC,” Abaya said in a text message.

Abaya said Oban had called asking where the allegations linking him to smuggling had come from. Abaya said his reply was “I said I guess it is all part of public service.”

Ramon S. Ang, head of the country’s biggest oil refiner and retailer Petron Corp., earlier disclosed that the government was losing as much as P40 billion a year in foregone revenues due to the rampant smuggling of petroleum products. With reports from Cathy Yamsuan and Paolo G. Montecillo

Bureau of Customs abolition planned By Michelle V. Remo Philippine Daily Inquirer

Complete overhaul seen as only solution

[TOTAL OVERHAUL Ruffy Biazon: Customs reform is not just about chopping off heads. EDWIN BACASMAS]

MANILA - Believing that any less stringent measure will not suffice to stamp out smuggling, the Aquino administration is considering abolishing the Bureau of Customs and replacing it with a professional institution run by private officials and employees.

Customs Commissioner Rozzano Rufino Biazon said he had an initial discussion with President Benigno Aquino III about a top-down cleansing at the customs bureau that would once and for all end smuggling and corruption in the agency.

“One concept done by other countries is a complete overhaul [of their customs departments] through abolition. We might have to do that,” Biazon said in a roundtable discussion with Inquirer editors and reporters on Thursday night.

The Bureau of Customs has been under fire in recent days, with reports about the rampant smuggling of oil through special economic zones and agricultural products that is costing the government billions of pesos in lost revenues every year.

Critics have demanded the resignation of Biazon for allegedly failing to stamp out smuggling despite the Aquino administration’s emphasis on transparency and good government.

Get rid of them all

Unknown to them, Biazon himself has proposed scrapping the entire customs bureau to get rid of all the corrupt officials and employees in the agency.

Biazon cited the example of Peru, which, to defeat corruption and smuggling, abolished its custom department, put up a new one, adopted strict qualifications for hiring, and paid higher salaries to the new officers and employees running the new agency.

In the case of the Philippines, Biazon said, corruption is deeply entrenched in the customs bureau’s culture and system so firing a few people or catching some smugglers will not solve the problem.

Biazon explained that face-to-face transactions between front-line customs personnel and importers open up opportunities for corruption.

Resistance to reforms

The solution, he said, is to have a completely automated system that will do away with direct dealings between customs employees and importers.

On his watch, he said, the customs employees’ strong opposition to reform makes it difficult for him to clean up the bureau.

Biazon cited an administrative order he issued last year for the automation of one customs procedure. “Concerned customs employees,” citing a threat to their job security, went to court and obtained a restraining order to block the reform.

“Customs reform is not just about chopping off heads. The guys down there in the front lines are the ones who have the power to perpetuate these things (corruption),” Biazon said.

He said the Philippines has been left behind by many countries in customs improvement. In those countries, he said, systems eliminating discretions of customs officers have been implemented to avoid corruption.


Biazon also said that under the proposal being considered by the Aquino administration, the replacement of the customs bureau will not be dependent on the national government for its budget. Instead, it will retain 3 percent of its tax and duty collections to finance its own operations.

That way, Biazon said, the new institution will not have to go to Congress every year to ask for budget approval, thus keeping itself free from the influence of politicians.

“We must insulate customs from politics,” Biazon said.

Moreover, the proposal states that, if possible, the employees of the new organization will be exempted from the Salary Standardization Law. With the exemption, it can pay its employees relatively higher salaries than what regular government agencies pay their staffs.

Giving high salaries is one way of shielding customs officers and employees from temptation, Biazon said.

Private auctions

He said that if he had his way, the customs bureau would no longer hold auctions to dispose of forfeited goods. Having a private group do that job is a prudent idea, he said. It will also defeat the “auction syndicates,” dummies of smugglers who forfeited the goods. With the syndicates being allowed to top the auctions by corrupt customs officers, the smuggled goods go back to the smugglers.

“One of the benefits of this proposal is the expedited disposal of forfeited cargos. Another is the process of auction becomes transparent,” Biazon said.

“If the function is delegated to the private sector, customs would be able to concentrate more on its other vital functions,” he said.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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