Immigration officers quietly return from suspension as 'pastillas' probes continue

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Immigration officers quietly return from suspension as 'pastillas' probes continue
This government photo release shows President Rodrigo Duterte meeting officials and personnel of the Bureau of Immigration allegedly involved in the ‘pastillas’ controversy at the Malacañang Palace on November 9, 2020.

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte boasted in his last State of the Nation Address that he fired officials tagged in the “pastillas” scheme, but some are back at work while investigations continue.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra confirmed to Philstar.com that the immigration officials slapped with a six-month prevention suspension by the Office of the Ombudsman in December have returned to the bureau.

“The six-month preventive suspension of the BI personnel allegedly involved in the so-called ‘pastillas’ scheme has already lapsed,” he said in a text message late Tuesday night.

“These BI personnel have returned to the main office by most of them have not been given assignments while their cases remain pending,” Guevarra added.

Duterte in November summoned more than 40 BI officials implicated in the “pastillas” scheme, where officers allegedly received money rolled in paper — similar to the traditional Filipino milk candy — for the seamless entry of Chinese nationals into the country.

In his SONA, Duterte recounted that he wanted the immigration officers to eat money wrapped in paper, but that Guevarra’s presence stopped him from doing so.

"I have the [pastillas scheme] at the airport. There were 43 personnel involved. I fired them all. I really told them to leave the government. I even rolled up money for the pastillas."

READ: FULL TEXT: Duterte's 2021 State of the Nation Address

A source told Philstar.com that the suspended immigration personnel were already back at work but had been assigned away from the airport. Asked how many immigration officials implicated in the scheme had been fired, the source replied: "Zero."

The officials summoned to the Palace were put on a six-month preventive suspension by the Ombudsman over the National Bureau of Investigation's first batch of complaints related to the racket.

The NBI filed a second batch of complaints early in November and the Ombudsman issued six-month suspensions on 39 immigration personnel. The earlier October 26 order suspended 44.

Among those who returned to the bureau is former Ports Operations Division acting chief Grifton Medina — the highest-ranking official sued by the NBI — but the DOJ chief said he has not returned to the same division.

In a July 2021 bureau release, Medina was cited as BI Personnel Section chief.

Guevarra explained: “It’s up to the BI commissioners if they wish to give these subject personnel any new assignments.”

A May 2021 DOJ department order shown to Philstar.com "re-designates" Medina as acting chief of the bureau's personnel section. The post is "in addition to [his] previously assigned duties and responsiblities as Head, Committee on Good Governance."

Investigation ongoing

The DOJ chief however stressed that investigations are still ongoing even if the immigration officials have returned to the bureau. 

"[T]he preliminary investigation being conducted by the Ombudsman is still going on. So is the administrative proceedings being conducted by the DOJ," he said.

He also clarified that these officials were "not fired or dismissed, precisely because the investigation of their cases is still going on."

The immigration bureau announced in November 2020 that they will be implementing a one-strike policy on corruption. If BI's Board of Discipline finds a complaint to have merit, the bureau will immediately recommend the filing of an administrative case against personnel before the Department of Justice, the BI’s mother agency.

RELATED: Immigration announces 'one-strike policy' vs erring personnel

The "pastillas" scheme was uncovered in a Senate legislative probe led by Sen. Risa Hontiveros in early 2020. 

A year later, Hontiveros asked the NBI to look into travel agencies that supposedly process fake passports and counterfeit government documents to allow foreign nationals’ entry into the country.

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