Gargantuan task

HIDDEN AGENDA - The Philippine Star

After the presidency, there is probably no other job in government more difficult than running the Customs bureau.

Heading the Bureau of Customs is like being engaged in battle, and the enemies, most of who are unknown, are coming from all fronts.

Whoever wants to clean up the Customs bureau is facing a Herculean task because corruption is deeply entrenched in the system and has become a way of life for many Customs officials and employees. Technical and outright smuggling will not be curbed if Customs officials and employees are willing participants and are benefiting from these practices.

The task of Customs commissioner Ruffy Biazon is far from being enviable. Just recently, major oil companies exposed big-time smuggling of petroleum into the country, and the government and the private sector are asking the Customs bureau to find the culprits.

There is also so much misunderstanding as to the metrics by which the performance of the Customs bureau, and the Customs commissioner for that matter, should be measured.

While it is true that the Customs bureau is the second biggest revenue producing government agency next to the Bureau of Internal Revenue, its job is not to raise funds for the public coffers. According to the Worlds Customs Organization and the World Trade Organization, the main task of the Customs bureau is trade facilitation  and the enforcement of  the Tariff and Customs Code which regulates the country’s trade with other countries.

Tariffs and duties on imported goods are intended not to raise revenues but to protect local businesses and industries from unfair competition from abroad.   Nevertheless, their collection does contribute a substantial sum to government revenues, and helps in the financial sustenance of the government, and in boosting economic growth. 

In a recent speech before the Makati Business Club, Biazon identified the three mandates for the bureau.  These are tariff collection, border security by preventing smuggling of anti-social or prohibited goods; and trade facilitation.

But a lot of things hamper the enforcement of these mandates. These include the so-called “padrino system,” with bureau officials and employees having their own political backers; “attack and collect” mediamen; rival businessmen who try to outdo each other by accusing their rivals of smuggling, with BOC as collateral damage; those who  pretend to be anti-smuggling advocates, but are in fact connected with the smuggling syndicates; and the need to enact Customs reform laws.

Biazon said that they are pushing for the passage of the Customs Modernization Bill, which will update the Tariff and Customs Code of the Philippines, a law passed in 1957 and amended only a few times. The bill would reconcile the tariff code with the revised Kyoto Convention which the Philippines has signed and which provides for trade facilitation under WTO rules.

Belated move

A fellow by the name of Louie Biraogo just recently revealed that reelectionist Senator Loren Legarda failed to declare in her statement of assets, liabilities and networth (SALN) a multi-million-peso property she owns which is located in Park Avenue in New York, considered one of most expensive addresses in the world and where the Trumps and the Rockefellers also own properties.

According to Biraogo, Legarda acquired a condominium unit at No. 77 Park Avenue for $700,000 or around P36 million in May of 2006 but did not include this in her SALN from 2007 up to  2010.

Biraogo revealed that it was only in her 2011 SALN that Legarda declared for the very first time her ownership of the Park Avenue condominium unit but placed its value at only P27.8 million. Some critics say that Legarda may have feared suffering the same fate as impeached Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona and that is why she belatedly made the inclusion in her SALN.

The problem though is that while Legarda said in her 2011 SALN that she owns a US-based property, it did not give any specifics. So was she referring to the property in Park Avenue?

We do not know who Biraogo is, but newspaper reports say that he has figured in a number of celebrated court cases starting in his sophomore law student year in UP Diliman when he questioned before the Supreme Court the 350 percent increase in UP’s tuition and other fees;  another in 1985 when he challenged before the SC the constitutionality of the snap presidential election which triggered the 1986 People Power Revolution; and more recently in 2010 when he  questioned the Truth Commission before the SC.

According to Biraogo, if Delsa Flores, a lowly court interpreter, was sacked from her post and forbidden from holding public office for life by the SC  for failing to declare in her SALN a market stall that she owned, then, the same strict standard should be applied in the case of Legarda.

For comments, e-mail at philstarhiddenagenda@yahoo.com

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