Importer claims extortion; RATS cries injusticeBy Michelle V. Remo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
(Second of three parts)
For Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon, the abolition of the present Bureau of Customs (BoC) and creation of a new one may be the most effective way to get rid of corruption and put an end to smuggling. But since doing so is not legally possible at the moment, the Customs chief said he would have to make do with instituting reforms in BoC one step at a time.
But the reforms promised may not be carried out as planned because Biazon may leave his current post sometime soon as he is expected to run for the Senate next year.
President Aquino believes that the anti-smuggling efforts being carried out by his administration are gaining ground.
He earlier reported that the Run After the Smugglers (RATS) team of the Bureau of Customs had so far filed 44 cases against suspected big-time smugglers accused of shipping in some P60 billion worth of illegal goods.
But what the President failed to mention was that the government’s campaign was in troubled waters and could be set back because of some serious issues.
One issue involves members of the RATS team themselves and an importer accused of smuggling.
In January this year, eight members of the RATS team were dismissed from service on charges of extortion hurled against them by a company that the team had accused of smuggling.
The dismissed RATS members felt that the strong influence exerted by some companies and businessmen on the government obstructed the administration’s anti-smuggling drive.
On the other hand, the company claimed that unscrupulous Customs personnel had been using the anti-smuggling drive to “harass legitimate businessmen and extort money from them.”
All the dismissed BoC personnel were the ones who filed the 44 smuggling cases now pending in court. With their dismissal, many fear that the cases, and the government’s chances of collecting the P60 billion or so in unpaid duties, may vanish into thin air.
It is not clear whether the courts will still allow the dismissed BoC personnel to testify in these cases. Even if they are allowed, the extortion complaint against them may tarnish their credibility as witnesses.
The dismissed members of the Customs team are Christopher Dy Buco, Edgar Quiñones, Francisco Fernandez Jr., Alfredo Adao, Jose Elmer Velarde, Thomas Patric Relucio, Jim Erick Acosta and Gregorio Chavez, who is Customs deputy commissioner and RATS head.
Sanyo Seiki Stainless Steel Corp., an importer accused by the RATS team of “smuggling” P1.35 billion worth of steel products in 2010 alone, filed the extortion complaints—one with the Office of the Ombudsman and another with the Office of the President through Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr.
For Sanyo Seiki, owned by the Chan family and headed by its president Gregory Uy Chan, the dismissal of the RATS team members was justice appropriately served.
Claiming that the smuggling case against it was baseless, Sanyo Seiki said Customs officials were harassing the company and had asked for money in exchange for leaving it alone.
The company won the favor of the Office of the President. Saying that the claims of the steel importer had basis, Ochoa on January 26 issued the order on behalf of the President dismissing the eight members of the Customs team.
Frank Chavez, legal counsel of Sanyo Seiki, said the dismissal of the anti-smuggling personnel was a big relief. Since their dismissal, the lawyer said, Sanyo Seiki had been able to peacefully conduct its business.
He said the Customs personnel started asking for money in November 2010, when they seized 84 containers of steel products owned by Sanyo Seiki. Chavez insisted that the taxes on the goods had been paid.
Following the seizure, he said, anti-smuggling officials, through customs brokers, asked money from Sanyo Seiki and promised that they would leave the company alone.
Chavez said Sanyo Seiki was forced to “pay.” It issued two checks—in the amount of P5 million each—in two separate instances in late 2010.
A source claimed that the BoC team initially asked for P5 million, but later that year, it again sought another P5 million. The checks were both in the name of the company’s broker with the understanding that the money was intended for the RATS personnel.
“The company issued the checks not because it was guilty of smuggling but because it feared that the false accusations of smuggling could ruin its business,” the lawyer said.
But the “extortion” continued, Chavez said.
In January 2011, the RATS team again asked for more money, this time worth a staggering P179 million, he said.
“My client was appalled … [by the] huge amount of money,” Chavez said.
Sanyo Seiki did not pay up. Instead, the lawyer said, it issued a check worth another P5 million believing that it should be enough for the “extortion” to end.
However, Chavez said, the harassment continued. In June 2011, members of the RATS team went to the warehouse of Sanyo Seiki in Meycauayan, Bulacan, saying they would be checking whether import taxes and duties on steel products kept in the warehouse were properly paid.
In its complaint submitted to Ochoa, Sanyo Seiki said the RATS team did not have the necessary mission order to conduct the inspection.
“They were trying to fool the security guards. They presented a mission order that was addressed not to Sanyo Seiki but to a different company. The security guards were smart enough not to let them in,” the lawyer said.
The customs officers did not stop there, he said. “They, instead, lingered in the vicinity of the warehouse. It was distracting.”
While the customs officers were holding the stakeout, Chavez said, a truck containing steel products got out of the warehouse. The customs personnel stopped and seized the vehicle with the goods it contained.
Sanyo Seiki said that was done without any seizure order from the BoC. It also said the seizure was uncalled for because the goods were not imported but were bought from local suppliers.
“Clearly, what they did was harassment,” Chavez said.
But members of the Customs team are crying injustice over their dismissal.
Gregorio Chavez, the head of the team, said Sanyo Seiki was “a big fish.”
He said it was unfortunate and ironic that efforts of the members of the RATS team to pin down a suspected big-time smuggler led to their dismissal.
“We thought that with President Aquino’s matuwid na daan (straight path) campaign, the anti-smuggling drive would be strengthened. We thought he said he would be with us along the way. What happened to us is demoralizing,” the dismissed Customs official said.
He claimed that the P179 million Sanyo Seiki had asked to pay was not for bribe but for payment of unpaid taxes and duties the BoC was trying to collect for the P1.35 billion worth of steel products the company had imported.
This particular shipment, he added, was the subject of a Department of Justice case filed by the Customs team against Sanyo Seiki.
As for the visit of the Customs men to Sanyo Seiki’s warehouse, the team leader said the move was part of their job to foil possible smuggling activities. He added that the seizure of the truck and the goods it contained was necessary because the company could not produce the documents showing that the goods had been bought from local sources.
He claimed the RATS team had the appropriate mission order. The office of the Customs Commissioner, in fact, issued four mission orders all meant for Sanyo Seiki, although three of those were addressed to names different from Sanyo Seiki’s, the team leader said.
“The mission orders had to be in different names because the company was using different identities to evade detection by authorities,” he explained.
He also denied receiving three checks worth P15 million that Sanyo Seiki claimed to have issued.
“We did not get any of those checks,” he added.
Dismissal, not reward
The checks were actually in the name of Anabel Mozo, who was one of the customs brokers of Sanyo Seiki. Sanyo Seiki filed a separate case against Mozo and a few other brokers with the Office of the Ombudsman.
At the Ombudsman, the customs brokers admitted receiving P15 million worth of checks, but insisted that the amount was supposed to be used to settle unpaid taxes, duties and other customs fees that Sanyo Seiki had failed to pay in the past.
“Instead of being rewarded for doing our job, we were dismissed,” said Thomas Patric Relucio, a member of the Customs team who had been with the bureau for 11 years.
“We don’t know if the President is even aware of our case,” Relucio said. “He cited our achievements with pride during his speech in February (during the 110th anniversary celebration of the BoC), but his executive secretary had already dismissed us the month before.”
The Inquirer tried to get comments from the executive secretary, but his office begged off saying it could not make a statement on the matter since deliberations on the appeal of the Customs team was ongoing.
Relucio said their dismissal was not only a victory for Sanyo Seiki, but also for all other big companies that had been charged with smuggling by the former members of Customs.
“The smuggling cases we filed were all against large companies suspected of smuggling. We were supposed to serve as witnesses to those cases. Now, we have been taken out of the picture,” Relucio said.
To be continued
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