Duterte and the company he keeps

RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 21 2018 07:51 PM | Updated as of Jul 22 2018 02:43 AM

DAYS before assuming the country’s presidency in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte reiterated a campaign promise to get rid of corruption, just as his close circle of supporters said only the best and the brightest would make it into his administration.

“Huwag na huwag talaga akong makarinig na corruption, [not] even a whiff or whisper. I will fire you or place you somewhere (Don’t let me hear about corruption or I will fire you or place you somewhere),” he said in a speech.

President Duterte has indeed fired government officials, told them to resign, or accepted their resignation — officials mired in controversies, including those who helped him during his campaign. Such parting of ways has been triggered by various reasons, ranging from loss of confidence and command responsibility to suspicion of corruption, two years into his administration.

Curiously, however, the President has taken back some of these officials and given them another government assignment, unmindful of his campaign promise. And the list seems to grow.

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Jose Gabriel Pompee La Viña. Department of Agriculture

One classic example is Jose Gabriel Pompee La Viña, the man who ran Duterte’s social media campaign in the May 2016 elections. La Viña went from being a commissioner of the Social Security System to undersecretary of the Department of Tourism. In both posts, La Viña was in the middle of a controversy. He was accused of quarrelling with fellow commissioners and of questionable funding request at the Social Security System (SSS). He is now agriculture undersecretary.

In an interview, La Viña said Duterte did not even ask him about the controversies raised against him and instead talked about where in government would he be better suited. “Sabi niya mukhang di ka masaya doon sa policy sa SSS, hindi bagay, mukhang kailangan mo ng aksyon,” he said.


Former Bureau of Customs (BOC) Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

At the height of the Senate investigation into the smuggling of P6.4-billion worth of methamphetamine hydrochloride, or shabu, into the country, the President had to accept the resignations of Customs chief Nicanor Faeldon and colleagues Milo Maestrecampo and Gerardo Gambala. The three were never slapped with formal charges, much less administrative cases.

Faeldon is now with the Office of Civil Defense. Gambala and Maestrecampo now hold positions at the Department of Transportation. (The President also accepted the resignation of his son Paolo Duterte as Davao City vice mayor, who had been accused of having a hand in the release of the prohibited substance, which he vehemently denied. The young Duterte has somewhat kept a low-key profile.)


Former Presidential Commission on Urban Poor officials Terry Ridon, Joan Lagunda and Melissa Aradanas. PCUP Photo

In December 2017, the Palace announced that the President fired the chair of the Presidential Commission on the Urban Poor (PCUP), Terry Ridon, and PCUP commissioners Melissa Aradanas, Joan Lagunda and Manuel Serra Jr., all for frequent and unnecessary foreign travels.

Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque had minced no words in articulating the President’s displeasure.

“This kind of work performance has no place in the Duterte administration,” Roque said.

“We are serious about the drive against corruption in government and this latest decision of the President proves beyond doubt the President is very serious in his anti-corruption campaign.”

Yet, Aradanas, Lagunda and Serra would find their way back to the administration through different positions in the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and Philippine Coconut Authority, respectively.


Former PhilHealth Chairperson Celestina dela Serna. PhilHealth photo

When the chair of PhilHealth, Celestina dela Serna, came under fire in June for excessive travels from her home in Bohol to Manila and for excessive hotel bills while in Manila, the President at once took action. He kicked Dela Serna out as chair, but retained her quite kindly as PhilHealth board member.


Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Undersecretary Martin Diño.  Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Martin Diño, the man who filed a certificate of candidacy to allow the then-reluctant Duterte to have a window in case he finally decided to run, was awarded a much coveted post — the chairpersonship of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA).

But when Diño quarreled with other SBMA officials in what looked like a turf war, the President took it as a signal to place him where he probably really belonged — Interior and Local Government undersecretary.


Former Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella. Malacanang Photo

The President has also been unforgiving of officials who committed a seemingly minor offense.

He forced out of Malacañang his mild-mannered spokesman Ernesto Abella who failed to articulate well enough a survey rating on the administration. But Abella would find another job, this time as undersecretary at the Department of Foreign Affairs.

In an interview, political science professor Francisco Magno of De La Salle University said finding a position that truly befits an appointee is a valid point.

“Sometimes it’s not the fit for them. It’s very important to consider those factors. (But) it’s not very good to recycle damaged goods.”

Whether these officials are damaged goods or not, the President must look at other talents who could help his administration, according to professor Ranjit Rye of the University of the Philippines.

“The President has to widen his pool, has to deepen his pool and has to open up to other individuals,” he said.


Composite image of former DILG Secretary Ismael Sueno, Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo and Tourism Promotion Board head Cesar Montano. Malacanang Photo, Jonathan Cellona, Fernando Sepe, Jr., ABS-CBN News

The President might have the audacity in firing officials he brought with him in government, but thanks or no thanks, he didn’t show similar resolve to make them accountable. Cases in point: Ismael Sueno of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and lately Wanda Tulfo-Teo of the Department of Tourism (DOT), Vitaliano Aguirre of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Cesar Montano of the Tourism Promotions Board.

Duterte let go of Ismael Sueno as DILG chief after the former South Cotabato governor was accused of bribery, buying overpriced firetrucks and of owning a hotel. Sueno denied all the allegations.

The President accepted Teo’s resignation after the Commission on Audit flagged the DOT’s purchase of advertising placements in a TV production outfit owned by her brother.

Aguirre resigned after a series of allegations and controversies. The last one was after a DOJ panel dismissed cases of illegal drugs against suspected drug lords.

Montano quit the Tourism board amid allegations of corruption in the DOT’s Buhay Karinderya Project.

Until posting time, the government has not initiated the filing of cases against Sueno, Teo, Aguirre and Montano.

But allowing these people with no formal charges in court and in some cases, given new cushy jobs in government, political science professor Jean Franco of the University of the Philippines said, undermined the President’s own anti-corruption promise.

“(His sense of) fairness will be questioned, along with his commitment to accountability and good governance),” she said in Pilipino.


Composite image of former Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno/former Dangerous Drugs Board Director Benjamin Reyes. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News/ DDB Photo

In contrast, the President’s critics who have also been accused of wrongdoing faced the full brunt of the law.

Maria Lourdes Sereno was ousted as chief justice after criticizing him. Senator Leila de Lima is now in jail pending trial for Duterte’s claim that she allegedly benefitted from the narcotics trade.

The President has also been intolerant of people he never liked, or people who displeased him.

He fired Benjamin Reyes as Dangerous Drugs Board chair whose total number of drug users differed from the president’s own.

Composite image of former CHED Chairperson Patricia Licuanan and Vice President Leni Robredo. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News/ Fernando Sepe, Jr., ABS-CBN News

Patricia Licuanan, chair of the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) from the Aquino Administration, quit after more than a year of pressure from Malacañang.

Vice President Leni Robredo resigned as chair of the Housing and Urban Development Council after she was told that the President no longer wanted her to attend Cabinet meetings.

Professor Magno of De La Salle University said only those who got recycled have a personal connection with Duterte.

“Those who have been recycled were people that the president has trust and confidence especially those from his place Davao City,” he said.


Composite image of former Environment Secretary Gina Lopez, former Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano, and former Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo. Gigie Cruz/ George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Five members of Duterte’s original Cabinet who were rejected by the Commission on Appointments have not been reappointed.

Gina Lopez of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Rafael Mariano of the Department of Agrarian Reform; and Judy Taguiwalo of the Department of Social Welfare and Development were rejected not because of corruption but because of their advocacies.

Composite photo of former Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay and former Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial AFP Photo/ George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Perfecto Yasay of the Department of Foreign Affairs was rejected after his citizenship was questioned. Paulyn Jean Rossel Ubial was rejected over questions over her competence for the post.


PCSO General Manager Alexander Balutan. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Surprisingly, the President didn’t fire one other government official caught in similarly controversial circumstances.

The general manager of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, Alexander Balutan, remains in his post despite allegations raised by PCSO board member, erstwhile whistle blower Sandra Cam, that he spent lavishly during the PCSO employees’ last Christmas party using government funds.

Indeed, there are people whose company the President wants to keep.

But while it has been often said that one will know the character of a person by the company he keeps, when it comes to the company the president keeps, the country must keep watch to make sure the president and the company he keeps serve the interests of the country.