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Political pressures, including one allegedly from the influential Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ or INC), have forced Customs Commissioner John Phillip Sevilla to resign his post on Thursday.
Sevilla announced his resignation in a news conference. He said his resignation would become effective as soon as Malacañang names his successor.
Sevilla disclosed that he personally met with President Benigno Aquino 3rd on Wednesday during which he handed over his resignation.
“My resignation will be effective as soon as there will be a replacement,” he said, declining to identify his successor.
A few hours after Sevilla’s news conference, Malacañang released a facsimile of a letter signed by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. accepting Sevilla’s resignation.
The Palace also released a copy of the appointment letter of Alberto David Lina as the new Customs commissioner. Both documents were dated April 23.
Lina was Customs chief during the Arroyo administration, but he was replaced when he joined the “Hyatt 10” or the group of Cabinet members who resigned their posts to join the call for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s resignation at the height of the “Hello Garci” scandal in 2004.
Lina, brother of former senator Jose “Joey” Lina, was president of the Aircargo Forwarders of the Philippines Inc., an industry association of airfreight forwarders, and was president of Air21, a cargo forwarding company.
The resigned Customs chief admitted encountering difficulties in implementing reforms at the waterfront’s premier revenue-generating agency.
“Kapag gawin mo ang tama sa Customs, may risk kang kahaharapin [There’s always a risk when you do something right at Customs],” he said.
According to Sevilla, his less than two-year stint at the waterfront has introduced him to a lot of “rude awakening,” saying that things considered immoral and unimaginable in the outside world were normal in the Bureau of Customs.
A Department of Finance undersecretary, he was appointed by President Benigno Aquino 3rd as officer-in-charge of the BOC in December 2013, after then-Customs Commissioner Rozzano Rufino “Ruffy” Biazon resigned.
Biazon, a former Muntinlupa City (Metro Manila) representative in Congress, was forced to resign after the Department of Justice filed charges against him and 33 other incumbent and former congressmen in connection with the alleged pork barrel scam.
But despite his bad experiences, Sevilla said he has no regrets because it is an honor working for the government and for the people.
“My only regret is not [being] able to finish what I have started,” he added.
Sevilla, however, clarified that his decision to step down was voluntary and was made primarily because of the political presssures.
“I did my best. I fervently hope that my successor can run the bureau much better and smoother than it is today. He or she needs to do a better job than me because I believe that the straight path here in Customs is in grave danger,” he said in Filipino.
Whoever would be appointed Customs commissioner, according to Sevilla, should ensure the success of the tuwid na daan (straight path), referring to the President’s battlecry against graft and corruption in the government.
He said he felt and sensed telltale signs of the ugly face of politics creeping back into the system, one of the reasons why the BOC has been branded as among the most corrupt agencies of the government.
“In the past weeks, I’ve spoken to friends at the BOC and we all agreed that the atmosphere in the agency is politically charged… there are political factors moving in the background,” Sevilla added, also in Filipino.
“When I started working here, I did everything to insulate the BOC from politicking but in the past months, it’s becoming very difficult and it might be impossible to hold on to the reforms in the coming months.”
He disclosed that there are people who have been dropping the name of the INC in forcing him to appoint Teodoro Raval, the incumbent chief of the BOC’s Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) division, as head of the Enforcement and Security Services (ESS). The ESS chief has direct supervision and control over the 400-strong BOC security force.
“Walang ibang dahilan na binibigay para sa appontment ni Attorney Raval. Malakas ang tulak na ma-promote sa matataas na posisyon sa Customs [There are no other reasons given for Attorney Raval’s appointment. There’s a strong push to have him promoted to a top position at Customs],” he said.
“This is all second- hand information. Nobody has approached me from Iglesia ni Cristo but its name is being used [in Customs]. In fact I doubt if it is really the INC, but in all my conversations about this, the name of Iglesia ni Cristo is always used.
But just the same, even if it is the INC or whoever it is, I don’t believe in the political basis of appointment in Customs,” Sevilla added.
“I have nothing against any religious group. I’m not sure, I don’t believe that it is really the Iglesia Ni Cristo but it is the only name that is always mentioned,” he said.
Customs sources have told The Manila Times that Raval’s appointment as ESS chief was approved and endorsed by Malacanang last December but Sevilla opposed it.
Sevilla neither confirmed nor denied reports that Raval’s appointment has been approved.
“I don’t talk about my conversations with the President. I met with the President, I submitted my resignation,” the Customs chief said.
But aside from the Raval case, Sevilla also admitted that there were other political incidents that led to his resignation but declined to elaborate.
“I don’t want to compromise ongoing investigation, but there are other signs.”
“It is my principle that politics and principle peddling should have no place in Customs. If you give way to one, how will you know that it would be the last?” he said.
“I am only being consistent. Its either you accede [to influence peddlers], in which case you say goodbye to reform, or you won’t accede, zero. What is important is you are consistent,” Sevilla pointed out.
A Malacanang spokesman conceded that corruption still persists in the BOC because the agency’s problem is “institutional” and many of the agency’s processes are still susceptible to “personal influence.”
Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said Sevilla’s revelations about the corruption, bribery and intimidation he faced at the bureau only showed that the agency needs to undergo “systemic reforms.”
“What is needed here is the institutional strengthening of the Bureau of Customs,” he told reporters.
Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said Sevilla should go all out and name the political personalities who have forced him to vacate his post. He urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate Sevilla’s revelations.
“I think an investigation is in order and he should identify those political personalities pressuring him. What is the motive of these personalities?” the senator added.
Sen. Paolo Benigno Aquino 4th said Sevilla’s resignation is unfortunate because it was during his stint at the BOC when fruits of reforms he had instituted were realized, especially battling smuggling and improving revenue collection.
“The government lost an outstanding public servant with the resignation of Bureau of Customs Commissioner John Phillip P. Sevilla,” he noted.
WITH JOEL M. SY EGCO AND JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA