VLADIVOSTOK, Russia - For the second time in his administration, President Benigno Aquino III took up the cudgels for the man he calls his "eyes and ears" - close friend and Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Rico Puno who's embroiled in a controversy.
Still, the President said he was taking Puno out of his position as Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) undersecretary for police operations, and possibly replace him with current Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Nicanor Bartolome who will be asked to resign earlier than scheduled.
The President said it was he who ordered Puno to "seal" the office of DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, shortly after the latter went missing in a plane crash off Masbate in the afternoon of August 18.
"Sometime in the early evening, tumawag sa atin si Secretary Leila de Lima at pinaalalang may mga confidential folders si Secretary Robredo that needed to be secured," the President said.
"I instructed him to seal the office of Secretary Robredo to ensure that 'yung all of these records will be left intact. And that is the extent of the instructions that I gave to him."
He said it was logical for him to give the order to Puno because there were only two DILG undersecretaries, and the other one was involved in local governments.
Asked if he also ordered Puno to seal Robredo's condominium housing unit in Quezon City, the President said no. But he added he saw nothing irregular with Puno's going to the condo because "he probably thought there were papers there to secure as well."
Earlier reports implied that Puno and a group of policemen went to Robredo's office and condo unit shortly after the crash to retrieve documents on a DILG investigation into an arms deal allegedly involving Puno.
The President said he was not aware of such an investigation report. He also said Robredo was investigating the process, not necessarily Puno, with regard to the planned purchase of allegedly overpriced assault rifles that were not up to the required specs.
"Number one, hindi ko pa nakikita itong folders na ito, ano. Si Secretary Robredo kasi hindi ipapakita sa akin kung meron siyang report e, kailangan may, nagkaroon na ng imbestigasyon regardless of the topic, ano. Kumbaga may basehan, naimbestigahan na ng kapiraso, naabot na doon sa lebel niya kung hanggang saan makakaabot. Tapos kung kakailanganin na for instance ng tulong ng DOJ [Department of Justice] to file the necessary cases or for further instructions from me, doon niya ihaharap sa akin," Mr. Aquino said.
Asked if he still trusted Puno despite the current controversy, Mr. Aquino said: "Siyempre may presumption naman of innocence until proven otherwise."
However, the President also said he has decided to remove Puno from the DILG where the latter has been the center of controversy a couple of times. He said he would have to ask Puno if he was interested in another government post.
The President also said he has asked PNP chief Bartolome to consider moving forward his March 2013 retirement so he could replace Puno in the DILG.
Mr. Aquino said this would also give the next PNP chief more time to get settled months ahead of the 2013 elections.
"He (Bartolome) will be given a different position so as to afford the next director general time to, 'di ba, parang to get a firm hold of the forces that are in the PNP to ensure that we have peaceful elections," the President said. "(Bartolome) might replace Usec. Puno."
Asked how soon Puno will be leaving DILG, Mr. Aquino said things may have to wait until the new DILG Secretary Mar Roxas is confirmed by the Commission on Appointments so that he can fully assume his position.