Without additional and concrete evidence against Interior and Local Governments Undersecretary Rico Puno, I won’t tag him as a protector of jueteng lords. However, the Senate investigation into illegal gambling – and Malacañang’s response to the controversy — raises many questions not only on the integrity of Puno, but also on President Benigno Simeon Aquino III’s pledge to be the opposite of his unpopular predecessor.
I’m willing to grant Puno the benefit of the doubt when he denies receiving funds from the lords of jueteng. On other matters, however, he has been far from transparent, and I can understand Senator TJ Guingona’s complaint about the DILG official having a selective memory and penchant for evasive answers.
It is hard to accept Puno’s claim of not remembering the identities of the persons who approached him to cut a deal with the Aquino government – the regular modus of turning a blind eye on jueteng activities.
His amnesia seems fantastic given these details he bared to the Inquirer:
Operators of “jueteng,” an illegal numbers racket, used his friends and even relatives to approach him about payoffs, but Interior Undersecretary Rico E. Puno said he turned them all down.
“Some of them are retired policemen. Some of them are politicians. Some of them are even friends. Some of them are even relatives who approached me,” Puno said. “They were used as conduits.”
Puno disclosed the offers of payola after retired Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz said on Saturday that two trusted officials of President Benigno Aquino III in charge of overseeing security matters were accepting at least P2 million a month from jueteng operators.
If he was sharp enough to share these details just a few weeks back, can we blame Guingona for doubting the memory lapse story? What does it say of the DILG executive that he was approached by jueteng emissaries and never even bothered to file a written report?
This sin of omission becomes even more glaring when put in the context of an August 10, 2010 letter by his boss, DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, asking about persistent reports that he and (just retired) national police chief Jesus Versoza – now vacationing abroad – were on a jueteng payroll.
At the Senate hearing, Puno said he knew upon assumption of office on July 5 that “these things would come up.” His late father, he said, would have advised him not to accept the job because of the controversies surrounding the office. “I would have told him this is the only time as a citizen, this is the only chance we would be able to help our country,” the undersecretary added.
Puno claims his woes were hatched when he decided to reassign members of the 176-strong DILG internal security unit, retaining only 52 officers. “Five days after we removed them, we began to have, to see our names in the tabloids as people who have been collecting,” the undersecretary said. He accused the writers as those “getting some payola during the previous administration.”
In an interview with TV Patrol’s Julius Babao, Robredo said he was bothered by a series of tabloid reports. “Had we been more prompt and more visible in our response, palagay ko hindi kami pagdududahan.” (They would not be doubting us.)
“It’s the sad truth,” Robredo acknowledged. “Kulang talaga ang aming kasagutan dyan.” (We have not given it the proper response.)
The President’s man
Babao talked with Puno, too. He admitted receipt of the letter. He also said he did not give it the time of day, seeing it as part of a plot by detractors.
“Hindi ko pinansin, eh. Dahil hindi naman ako involved, eh. Sigurado naman akong black ops yan. Eh hindi ko sila kailangan kausapin. Malinis ang kunsensya ko. Hindi ko kailangan na habulin pa yan o imbestigahan dahil alam ko na ang kulay nila.” (I didn’t give it my attention since I am not involved. It’s a black operation. I do not need to talk to them. My conscience is clear. I don’t need to hear their side because I know their color.)
This is breathtaking in its illogic and irresponsibility. Critics will always be around. In refusing to even acknowledge a letter and order by his superior, just because he believes it is part of some vague, obscure plot, Puno sounds more like a Cabinet official of the former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo than a very dear friend and trusted aide of the man who told the nation, “Kung walang kurap, walang mahirap!” (Without corruption, there will be no poverty.)
By Puno’s own account, the President once told him, “If we fail, 95 Filipinos will suffer.” Given that President Aquino practically ignored the law by splitting powers at the DILG, giving Puno the run of the Philippine National Police (PNP) – the frontline and weakest link in the fight against illegal gambling –cavalier and insensitive are the least of the adjectives you could use for the undersecretary’s response to Robredo’s directive.
Does Mr. Puno realize what his statements say of Mr. Aquino? Does he even care?
It is even harder to accept Puno’s insistence that there was nothing wrong in his failure to expose these retired cops, politicians, friends and kin who interceded on behalf of the jueteng lords. Last I looked bribery remained a crime in this country. If that incident, as reported by Puno himself, does not count as an attempt at bribery, I don’t know what does.