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Alberto Lina

Fundraising at Customs

WHERE I STANDIn what appears to be a stinging rebuke to daang matuwid, Commissioner John Phillip Sevilla left the Bureau of Customs, decrying political pressure and linking it to sinister efforts to raise campaign funds for next year’s presidential elections.

This explosive revelation, on the heels of damaging reports from the Commission on Audit involving the alleged misuse of billions in government funds by the DA, DAR and DENR, is a strong indication that the thieves and highwaymen in government are still running merrily along on the so-called righteous path.

It is clear that Sevilla was forced to resign because he did not allow himself to be a party to the blatant meddling of top Palace officials in running the affairs of the Customs bureau toward devious ends.

Consider the hasty manner with which the Palace accepted the resignation of Sevilla and replaced him with former Customs chief Alberto Lina. It is so uncharacteristic, since this administration has been infamous of late for dragging its feet in filling vacant leadership positions at the PNP, Comelec, CSC and COA.

Just last Monday, Sevilla held a press conference denying rumors he was quitting and vowed that he would not allow the agency to be used as a milking cow by politicians. But in an abrupt about-face just three days later, he declared he had submitted his resignation to the President.

In a matter of hours, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. announced the President had accepted Sevilla’s resignation and had appointed Lina as his replacement. Turnover ceremonies were scheduled post-haste for the following day.

In just a week, Sevilla had gone from defending the ramparts of his agency from the barbarians at the gate to declaring it was not worth fighting for. Whether he admits or not, Sevilla’s parting with the bureau was the result of machinations from Malacañang. His resignation was a mere face-saving measure.

This recent turn of events at Customs is a sign that Palace officials are getting frantic in their preparations to stave off an imminent defeat in 2016. A huge war chest is obviously a prerequisite to counteract the administration’s plummeting approval and satisfaction ratings.

The more important question now is whether Commissioner Lina would allow himself or the BOC to be used to raise funds for next year’s elections. We are pretty sure the comebacking Customs chief will deny allegations of irregularities, but it is important to watch future developments on account of Sevilla’s statements.

The possible conflict of interest between Lina’s position and his private company, Air 21, a leading courier service with direct dealings with Customs, should also be considered. Like other Cabinet members, he may say that he has divested from his business to skirt around the legalities of his appointment.

But after quitting the government, will he still regain control of his business? We distinctly remember that, as BOC commissioner during the time of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, his company was derided with the insulting tagline “Air 21, walang bukasan,” referring to balikbayan boxes coursed through his company that sailed through Customs.

We hope Lina works well together with Cesar Purisima, his co-Hyatt 10 member who heads the Finance department that oversees the BOC. In a statement by the Makati Business Club, Commissioner Lina has big shoes to fill:

“The numbers do not lie: As head of the Customs reform team, Sevilla helped grow the bureau’s collections by 21 percent year-on-year in 2014 vs 5 percent in the pre-reform period, transformed Customs to be one of the most radically open and transparent agencies in the government, made government regulation more efficient for doing business in the country, and took great strides to thwart graft, technical and outright smuggling by filing cases, alert orders and seizures against erring importers, brokers and officials.”

“The Bureau of Customs is the most improved national government agency in terms of revenue collection last year, thanks in no small part to the person who led it.”

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