MANILA - Malacañang on Friday said former Bureau of Customs (BOC) chief Isidro Lapeña was a victim of a vilification campaign by the bureau’s corrupt officials in cahoots with drug smugglers.
Duterte had on Thursday said he “promoted” Lapeña and appointed him head of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), just as the government reeled from criticism over the BOC’s failure to block a supposed P6.8-billion drug shipment through the Manila port.
Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the transfer had nothing to do with the shabu shipment issue as this had been planned long ago.
In a statement, Panelo also said Lapeña managed the BOC “untainted and instituted several reform initiatives resulting in a substantial increase in its revenue collection that even surpassed its given targets” despite “nefarious practices” hounding the bureau.
“We maintain that drug syndicates, in cahoots with the bureau’s corrupt officials and employees, are behind the ongoing vilification campaign against Mr. Isidro Lapeña,” Panelo said.
“It is common knowledge that the Bureau of Customs is a corrupt-infested bureau and this cannot be denied even by past administrations.”
Lawmakers have questioned Lapeña’s transfer to TESDA, saying the former military man may not have what it takes to run such an institution.
Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros said Lapeña’s transfer shows that the "administration is a recycling bin for the corrupt and incompetent.”
“That President Duterte continues to express ‘trust’ in Lapeña despite his gross failings and the suspicion of corruption is a clear indication that this government is not interested in holding people to the standards of accountability,” she said in a statement.
“This is not an administration of the best and the brightest. This is not a government with the best interests of the country at heart. This is a regime of questionable characters and even more questionable competence.”
ACT Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio, meanwhile, said Lapeña’s transfer was meant to put an end to the investigation into the drug shipment, which the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency now estimates to be actually worth P11 billion, not P6.8 billion.
“Once again, the President is engaging in theatrics rather than in actually rooting out corruption and stemming the flow of illegal drugs from abroad,” Tinio said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate said Lapeña’s transfer is part of the ongoing “militarization” of the bureaucracy.
The President has repeatedly defended his appointment of military men to various government agencies, saying individuals with military background work more efficiently and carry out orders better.
In moving Lapeña to TESDA, Duterte appointed Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) administrator Rey Leonardo Guerrero, a former military chief, as the new Customs head. Guerrero would be the President's third Customs chief.
"Guerrero would be the 61st military appointee to the civil government and strengthens the de facto military junta now in place in the country," Zarate said.
"Having no proven competence nor knowledge on the agencies they are assigned in, these former military men just follow orders from the top. Yet, they just remain silent when corruption is exposed in their department then they are reassigned to another agency like what happened to [former BOC chief Nicanor] Faeldon and Lapeña.”
Faeldon, who left the BOC as he faced corruption charges, was later reassigned as Office of Civil Defense Deputy Administrator and, most recently, Bureau of Corrections chief.
Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano, meanwhile, said Lapeña’s transfer “encourages and perpetuates impunity and corruption in government.”
“Moreover, constant changing of leadership does not help in setting a clear direction for policy implementation,” Alejano added.
Addressing the criticism, Panelo said appointment decisions fall under the President’s prerogative.
“PRRD (Duterte) continues to have the complete trust and confidence on the competence and integrity of incoming Technical Education and Skills Development Authority Director-General Lapeña,” Panelo said.