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What are Duterte’s men fighting over?

INSTEAD of having a tight team assisting him do his job right, President Duterte is hobbled by his still having to referee his subordinates’ quarreling over turf and whatever comes with it.

The squabbles of the President’s men are starting to give an impression that the Cabinet has become a house divided, with the Chief Executive sometimes forced to choose quickly between feuding officials.

As is likely to happen when the boss fails to hear all sides or give an accused due hearing, the President’s instant intervention may have resulted in the summary firing and shaming of a few officials.

There was the humiliating dismissal of Interior Secretary Ismael Sueño in front of his fellow Cabinet members who saw him beg the President for a chance to answer his three undersecretaries’ accusations of corruption and other offenses.

Earlier, Mr. Duterte also dismissed National Irrigation Administrator Peter Laviña, his spokesman during the presidential campaign, on allegations of corruption. Until now, no charges have been filed against Sueño and Laviña.

Corruption has been a top concern of Mr. Duterte since the campaign. A whiff of corruption, he says, is enough to get any of his appointees dismissed. One problem, however, is if the foul odor is fake or being spread by a scheming operator.

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Laviña was accused of trying to benefit from a P5-billion irrigation project that ballooned into P14 billion long before his appointment. The scuttlebutt is that he was trying to stop the corruption, but was outsmarted by better positioned parties before he could put together the paperwork on his adversaries.

In the case of Sueño, it appears that a member of his family got involved in some transactions that raised a question of propriety, but not necessarily corruption.

The last straw, sources said, was the P18.5-billion appropriation for “Assistance to Disadvantaged Municipalities” which Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr. would like transferred from the Department of Interior and Local Governments to his left-leaning quasi-political party “Kilusang Pagbabago, for which no funds are provided in the budget.

Of this amount, the Department of Budget and Management has released P3.5 billion for 547 municipalities. But Sueño reportedly bucked the move, and got cooked for it.

• Big bucks at the center of rice issue

ANOTHER interesting case is the sacking of former Cabinet Undersecretary Maia Chiara Halmen Valdez, who insists she had been “fed to the lions.”

The President fired Valdez after she collided with National Food Administrator Jason Laureano Aquino over his extending the rice importation deadlines, a move that she opposed.

Her gravest sin, sources said, is that she is not only from Maribojoc, Bohol, where Evasco comes from, but is his protégé. That Evasco has become the most powerful Cabinet member has made it difficult for his peers to see him objectively. And it seems this had rubbed off to his undersecretary.

Her dismissal was described by some partisans as a “tactical victory” of one faction over another for control of rice importations by this rice-producing country.

We see it, however, as a fight over millions in kickbacks and commissions from rice importation, insurance and shipping, the allocation to cartel members salivating to re-bag the cereal, and the sharing from farmers’ cooperatives that do not have the capital and network but are willing to lend their import allocations to whoever will pay them.

(The paragraph above is a roundup of anomalies in the past. We do not know if these practices persist under the watch of Mr. Duterte and his feuding subalterns.)

Valdez is not a stranger to the nitty gritty of the rice trade since her mother, Menen Valdez, is related to Joey Cordero, a former NFA warehouse supervisor who rose to become NFA director in the National Capital Region.

Valdez is a lawyer who had worked for Sen. Francis Pangilinan when he was the Presidential Assistant for Food Security and Agricultural Modernization (Opafsam) under the previous administration.

Pangilinan was reportedly a legal consultant to All Asian, a commodity trader specializing in sugar and rice imports, before he was tapped by former President Noynoy Aquino to head Opafsam, a post that gave him control over the National Food Authority, Philippine Coconut Authority, National Irrigation Administration, and the Fertilizer and Pesticides Authority – all big-budget agencies formerly under the Department of Agriculture.

After working briefly with Sen. Cynthia Villar, chair of the Senate committee on agriculture, Valdez ended up employed by Evasco Jr. – a development that had led to the ouster of Avelino “Billy” Andal as chief of the Philippine Coconut Authority over allegations of his receiving a “fee” for every coconut tree cut in Zamboanga.

Andal, a partisan of President Duterte, refused to vacate his post and professed innocence.

It was the turn of Valdez last April 5 to be given the boot for junking the plea of NFA administrator Aquino that he be allowed to initially import 250,000 metric tons of rice under the government-to-government scheme to beef up stocks.

Rice importation is decided not by the NFA administrator but by the NFA Council chaired by Evasco, who had delegated some of his chores to Valdez.

The battle royal between Aquino and Evasco, with the former favoring government-to-government rice imports and the latter supporting private importations through the "minimum access volume" for rice set by the World Trade Organization.

But eventually the final decision on rice importation rests on President Duterte.

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