SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 3, 2017 - 4:00pm

If certain members of the House of Representatives have committed improprieties or broken the law in the Bureau of Customs or proposed to do so, BOC Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon should go ahead with his threat and expose them.

This is required by laws on corruption and conduct governing public officials and employees. Failure to report even an attempt or proposal to break the law is an act of omission that makes both parties liable.

Of course in reality, laws governing acts of omission are violated with impunity at all levels of government in this country. Especially if the illegal proposal is made by a superior. Ordinary government employees have enough problems just trying to make ends meet, and if there are crooks in their midst, they know enough to just live and let live.

Faeldon, however, is not just another government employee. And he has come out in the open with a sweeping accusation that he must back with evidence – like the written job endorsement from Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez that was leaked shortly after he was described on Facebook by Faeldon’s aide as an “imbecile.”

Yesterday Faeldon didn’t look like he was about to back down. While apologizing to the House for making a sweeping accusation, he said his threat of exposure was directed at 10 congressmen.

Even if there are “only” 10 influence peddlers, the Customs chief is duty-bound to name names and specify their purported impropriety or criminal act, as dared yesterday by senators. Especially if the 10 include several House leaders.

Faeldon, of course, will have to be ready for the return fire. And when you head an agency as rotten as the BOC, you can be sure your enemies can gather plenty of ammunition against you.

* * *

On the same day that the threat of an exposé was made, a witness was forced to admit before the House inquiry that he gave BOC officials P27,000 as grease money for every shipping container waved through the “green lane” at the Port of Manila.

The amount is on top of the legitimate fee of P40,000 per container, according to Customs broker Mark Taguba, who imported a shipment from China in May that was found to contain 605 kilos of shabu valued at P6.4 billion. Taguba said he handled the release of 500 shipments through the BOC from March to May this year alone, although Customs officials said the actual figure is 630. That’s P17 million in bribes in just three months.

Taguba, who claims he did not know the shipment on May 23 included shabu, could face either Oplan Double Barrel or life in prison for large-scale drug trafficking. But his cooperation in the House probe might lighten his penalty.

Under pressure from congressmen, Taguba also admitted that the recipient of his payoffs was at the House probe. The BOC official remained unnamed as of yesterday.

If Taguba is telling the truth, that BOC official deserves Tokhang more than the penny ante drug users who have been killed.

At this point, listening to the testimonies at the parallel probes on the shabu smuggling being conducted by the House and Senate, you can see how corruption has burrowed like a termite into the foundations of the BOC.

It’s an infestation that needs to be exterminated. The BOC has become a milking cow of crooks, who have managed to sabotage every effort to stop corruption. Computerization? Computer wires are painted with sardine sauce so they are gnawed away by rats. CCTV? Disabled. Computerized processing to eliminate personal discretion in assessment and processing? New steps or requirements are imposed to keep the discretion intact, so that there will always be a reason to extract facilitation fees.

* * *

Red tape, corruption and sheer inefficiency in the BOC are among the biggest hindrances to doing business in this country. Those trying to promote Pinoy entrepreneurship must first fix the mess at Customs.

One encounter with BOC crooks, especially for startups and micro entrepreneurs, is enough to make a budding businessman give up and opt instead to be an overseas Filipino worker. It can discourage returning OFWs from investing their hard-earned money even in home-based enterprises. They must run a gauntlet just to bring in a few kilos of specialty food items while the well connected can have luxury vehicles and shipping containers, contents unknown, waved through the BOC green lane.

“Micro enterprise” under the law is a business activity whose total assets do not exceed P3 million. They are not spared from shakedowns in the BOC. Enterprises with assets of less than P1 million do not stand a chance of importing anything.

With the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community, we should be seeing a tariff-free flow of goods and services within the region. For competitive enterprises, the free market should be a boon. Even home-based businesses at the bottom of micro enterprises can benefit.

With no more need to personally assess the value of shipments and required tariffs and duties, Customs personnel can focus on intercepting contraband such as prohibited drugs, guns and ammunition, biological hazards and weapons of mass destruction.

The government will lose revenue, but this must be weighed against the boost to business, job creation and overall national productivity and competitiveness as Customs processes are simplified and opportunities for graft are plugged. From new or expanded enterprises and their employees, taxes can be collected.

Those in power or with the right connections have no problem getting their shipments through Customs. This poses unfair competition and throws normal market forces awry, which also discourage investments. It gives undue advantage to the nation’s power elite and helps perpetuate yawning income disparities in this country.

President Duterte paints himself as a non-member of the elite, and he has made noises about leveling the playing field. If he is serious in this mission, exterminating the termites at Customs is indispensable for success.

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