Filipino Customs Official Quits, Citing Politics

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, stumbling from one crisis to the next, has a new one on his hands with the resignation of John P. Sevilla, a onetime Goldman Sachs banker, whom Aquino had brought in to clean up the country’s notoriously scandal-ridden customs bureau.

In an interview with the Manila-based website Rappler, Sevilla, the customs commissioner, said other officials pushed him to make unwarranted political appointments to top positions in the department, particularly of nominees from Iglesia ni Cristo, a politically powerful but religiously questionable Christian sect headed by Eduardo Y Manolo that wields considerable influence on the political process.

Despite four years of economic growth and rising prosperity, with gross domestic product rising at better than six percent annually over the past two years, Aquino’s popularity has been on a steady downward trend, triggered by a badly botched police raid in January in which 44 elite police officers were killed trying to capture a couple of Islamic terrorists.

An official board of inquiry report released in mid-March ignited public outrage when it was revealed that Aquino was involved in planning the raid along with Alan Purisima, a former police chief who was suspended in December on graft charges, and that the President botched the rescue of the police officials. Beyond that, the botched raid and its aftermath have thrown the capstone of his presidency, a proposed agreement with Moro rebels in Mindanao, into danger. Members of the legislature who must ratify the pact have balked because of the deaths.

The president took office in 2010 on a good governance platform, vowing to combat corruption as a barrier to growth and poverty reduction. He has had some success, blocking a series of projects by his predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo while the government rebuilt the tendering process to make it more transparent. But, as the Global Security risk firm pointed out, “Bribes, payoffs, and shakedowns have characterized Philippine government and society at all levels.” At one point, according to the assessment, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated that a full third of the annual national budget was lost to corruption.

“Two problems, in particular, have plagued the civil service,” Global risk said: “Corruption, especially in the Bureau of Customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and the natural tendency, in the absence of a forceful chief executive, of cabinet secretaries to run their departments as independent fiefdoms. Bribes, payoffs, and shakedowns characterized Philippine government and society at all levels.”

Reform of the customs department, given its reputation, is thus crucial to Aquino’s reputation. Indeed, after taking office in 2013, Sevilla introduced a series of reforms, making transactions transparent and issuing an “importer’s bible” describing what risks importers faced. He continued a high-stakes campaign against smugglers, filing cases nearly every week, according to the local press.

In his interview with Rappler, Sevilla didn’t elaborate on the reasons for his resignation, aside from saying that “when you do something right at the Customs, you will have to face some risks”.

Sevilla told Rappler that he ignored requests for favors and political appointments.

“Early on, actually days within I started, there were already lots of pressures for me to move certain people to certain sensitive positions,” Sevilla told Rappler in an exclusive interview on April 23, his first since he publicly announced his resignation.

“When it all started it was texts and phone calls,” he told Rappler. “From people I knew within government. None of these were, ‘Do this.’ It was all, ‘Hey you know so and so is counting on this. So and so wants so and so to be placed there.’ But I thought if you give in to one, it’s a slippery slope.”

His refusal to play along worked for most of his period in office. “I did not think that anyone outside of Customs or outside of government should have any say in appointments in Customs so I just asked the relevant deputy commissioners,” he said.

But on April 22, Rappler said, Sevilla submitted his resignation to the Office of the President after receiving word that an appointment he opposed is set to go through. That is Intellectual Property Rights Division acting chief Teddy Sandy Raval, who is to be elevated over Sevilla’s objections to the post of Director of Enforcement and Security Service, more commonly known as head of the Customs police. The position would oversee the 400 or so armed police force of Customs.

Sevilla had no information on Raval’s qualifications for the post, but the only reason always being given, he said, was that Iglesia ni Cristo wanted him there, Rappler said.

“I said, ‘What is this? Why are we appointing people at the behest supposedly of Iglesia ni Cristo? That just goes against my own principles,” Rappler quoted him as saying. “Every assurance I made to our own team here at Customs that politics and influence-peddling would have zero role in appointments and promotions in Customs.

“So I tried to resist that appointment for as long as I could. I learned fairly recently that the appointment is going to come through. I said, ‘Look there is something that is not right about this and I think it is something that’s important enough to the future of Customs and to me personally to take a stand against.’”

There have been rumors since January that he was on his way out, Rappler said, accompanied with personal attacks here and there and talk of powers-that-be easing him out, but when Rappler last spoke to Sevilla 3 months ago, he denied he was stepping down.

Did anyone ask him to leave his post this time around?

“I’d rather not answer that,” he said. However, just hours after Sevilla announced his resignation, the Bureau of Customs released a press statement on Friday's turnover ceremony for the new commissioner – Alberto D. Lina, a known supporter of the ruling Liberal Party and a close friend of Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima. Lina was also Customs chief under former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Sevilla's resignation, Rappler said, comes just a day after he announced his refusal to have the Bureau used as a fundraiser for the coming elections.

Sevilla, a former finance undersecretary, boasts an Ivy-league education, having graduated from Cornell and Princeton. Prior to joining the Department of Finance, Sevilla was an investment banker. He worked as executive director at investment bank Goldman Sachs, and was associate director and sovereign rater for credit rating agency Standard and Poor's.

“Sevilla speaks of a changing atmosphere in the Bureau – one that has become tangibly more political as the country approaches the 2016 presidential elections in May,” Rappler said. “And because he knows he is not a politically savvy person, he decided to step down.”

Even now, he acknowledges that he still does not know who is behind all the pressure for the appointments.

“To be honest, I don’t exactly know because the name that was being dropped all the time was Iglesia ni Cristo. Nobody from Iglesia ni Cristo ever spoke to me so I have no direct knowledge of whether this is really Iglesia ni Cristo. I also find it hard to believe that the [church] would do this. Maybe it's just a name being dropped. But obviously powerful people (are behind this).”