GMA rejects Customs officials’ quit bid
() - August 23, 2003 - 12:00am
Lifestyle checks prompted top Customs officials to resign yesterday, but President Arroyo rejected the quit offers.

Customs Commissioner Antonio Bernardo and four of his deputies tendered courtesy resignations but these were rejected by Mrs. Arroyo, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said.

"These resignations were not accepted by our President although she thanked the offers of these commissioners in the spirit of delicadeza (sense of propriety) and professionalism — which means that they will not hang on to their posts the minute the President feels that they are not implementing marching orders to transform the Bureau (of Customs)," Bunye said.

He said the letters were intended to give Mrs. Arroyo a free hand in reforming the bureaucracy.

At a news conference, Bernardo and Deputy Customs Commissioners Ray Allas, Jorge Gereos, Alexander Arevalo and Gil Valera said they resigned to protest what they described as the manner by which the lifestyle checks on the bureau’s rank and file are being conducted.

Deputy Commissioner Emma Rosqueta, who is retiring in December, is out of the country.

Customs employees staged a rally yesterday, complaining that the lifestyle checks were being imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The five officials claimed their resignation was to protest the lack of due process in accusing Customs officials of corruption.

"In the spirit of delicadeza and professionalism, we have tendered our courtesy resignations to reiterate our dedication to our sworn duty in service of our people," Bernardo said, reading their statement.

Finance Secretary Isidro Camacho tried to dissuade Bernardo and the four deputy commissioners from resigning. Camacho called up Bernardo a few minutes before the latter could hold a press conference.

Airport District Collector Celso Templo also disclosed that the 21 district collectors are also planning to follow suit to protest the lifestyle checks which they described as a form of a witch hunt.

The 3,000-strong Bureau of Customs Employees Association (BOCEA) also bared plans for a work stoppage on Monday.

Bernardo stressed officials of the bureau are being subjected to trial by publicity.

"Demoralization has creeped (sic) into each and every official and employee of the Bureau of Customs because of the improper manner by which the lifestyle checks on them are being conducted. This certainly would affect the entire operations of the bureau, particularly its revenue collection," Bernardo stressed.

While expressing support on the lifestyle checks on government officials, Bernardo deplored the manner by which the probe is being conducted on them. "We are already pictured as guilty even before we are charged in court," he said.

Bunye said the President will schedule a meeting to personally talk with Bernardo and the other officials.

He said even Mrs. Arroyo acknowledged that the bureau has greatly improved its revenue collections, exceeding their targets for the first seven months by as much as 19 percent.

On the lifestyle checks, Bunye said this is a means to implement the campaign to clean up the government of graft and corruption.

Bunye claimed their resignations were not irrevocable and were not intended to protest the "lifestyle checks" being imposed on government employees.

"This is more of a show of propriety, that they were giving the President a hand in pursuing the ongoing cleansing of the bureaucracy," Bunye said.

The lifestyle checks examine whether government employees have wealth and assets that go beyond their normal salaries.

Several government employees who have been checked were found to have substantial assets but they usually insisted the wealth came from legal sources such as relatives.

"For those under investigation, the President would like to assure them that they would be given due process and their rights would be respected. We will observe the rights of those under investigation and once done, these charges would be filed in proper legal venues," Bunye said.

Camacho added the officials were reacting to recent reports charging that some 80 percent of the Customs personnel had "unexplained wealth."

He said these statements gave an "unnecessary and unfair impression" that the agency was rife with corruption.

Camacho said the officials met with him Wednesday night to announce they would be resigning.

He said their actions were "commendable" but added Mrs. Arroyo has rejected the resignations.

"Proper investigation of unexplained wealth is something that we must continue to do. But baseless sweeping accusations is something that we should not do," he said.

Camacho conceded that he had been meeting with Customs officials over their complaints of "having been hurt by that sweeping accusation."
The Transparency Group
Mrs. Arroyo has vowed to continue the checks on government employees, saying that if civil servants and their families "can’t stand a life of relative sacrifice and frugality, he or she must leave the service."

She said her administration’s stand is to adopt the ethic of simple living in the government "and honest service must go hand in hand with a dignified lifestyle."

The President bared yesterday that her administration is committed to use both "negative and positive" measures in its war against graft and corruption.

"Punishment of the guilty is just as important as recognizing and rewarding integrity and dedication," Mrs. Arroyo said although she did not elaborate on what she termed as "negative and positive measures."

Presidential chief of staff Rigoberto Tiglao explained "negative" anti-corruption measures refer to actions that would be taken against suspected grafters in government such as being subjected to investigations, filing of charges and being punished.

The positive measures, on the other hand, refer to reforms and changes in the system.

"It’s just like a left-hand, right-hand approach in dealing with the problem," Tiglao told The STAR.

Tiglao is in charge of the newly created Transparency Group created under the Office of the President by virtue of Administrative Order no. 62 which Mrs. Arroyo issued earlier this year.

The body is tasked to assist the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission in the lifestyle checks on all her Cabinet officials and appointees.

The lifestyle probe is being done by the police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) headed by Director Eduardo Matillano.

Bunye clarified the Transparency Group does not overlap the functions and jurisdiction of other in-house anti-graft bodies.

The Department of Finance, for instance, has an anti-graft body "much like an internal affairs" which also conduct lifestyle checks on their employees at the Customs and Bureau of Internal Revenue.

"So the creation of the Transparency Group is an addition to help in the overall campaign because we have very widespread problem so it would not, perhaps, be too much for our President to add another outfit to assist in this extensive campaign," Bunye said.

Bunye pointed out the group entertains "confidential information" to start a formal investigation on the lifestyle of any presidential appointees. - With Des Ferriols, AFP

BERNARDO BUNYE CAMACHO CHECKS CUSTOMS LIFESTYLE MRS. ARROYO OFFICIALS PRESIDENT TRANSPARENCY GROUP
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