Who’s afraid of Rico Puno? (Sins of Omission) w Updates


President Aquino swears in Rico Puno as Undersecretary for Peace and Order of the Department of Interior and Local Government. (Photo courtesy of Harvey Keh’s website)

Dedma best describes official attitude towards Undersecretary Rico Puno of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG). Dedma is pretending a problem doesn’t exist, in the hope that it goes away. That’s how the administration of President Benigno Aquino III reacts when controversy hounds Puno. The guy has been untouchable since the day his gun-shooting buddy swore him into office. No way one goes around that. The latest incident involving the country’s Undersecretary for Peace and Order (that is NOT a joke) goes beyond the realm of high jinks and skirts the territory of crime. The President can’t ignore this, especially since the “victim” isn’t just the man he’s supposed to be “emotionally attached” to; it’s the government itself and the foundations of tuwid na daan 

Tweet courtesy of Coco Alcuaz, of ANC

WHY THE RUSH?

Page from a a condo bldg logbook showing Usec Rico Puno and his men’s attempt to enter the residence of the late DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo the day after his death in a plane crash. (photo courtesy of TV Patrol and abs-cbnnews.com)

In Anthony Taberna’s exclusive report for ABS-CBN, witnesses and documents — logbooks of buildings — show that Puno and several companions tried to enter the offices AND the Quezon City RESIDENCE of the late DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo on August 19.

This was was  less than 24 hours after Robredo and two pilots died in a plane crash off Masbate island. The Robredo family help reported the attempt to his widow, Leni. It must have been terrible; Leni and her children were still awaiting word on the fate of Jesse. As Sec. Mar Roxas stressed, it was still a rescue operation. And yet Puno was already snooping around like a vulture.

Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman, who stayed with the Robredo family as they awaited news of Jesse, confirmed that phone call. Napolcom vice chair Eduardo Escueta also verified the attempt to enter Robredo’s Napolcom office.

(Update) Mrs. Robredo has since confirmed the report. De Lima reiterates being asked by Mrs. Robredo to secure the documents — but now says she knows nothing about the raid.

 

 

Based on Taberna’s report, the operation was classic Puno: equal levels of confidence and incompetence. In the parallel reality called Punoverse, people must be really guillible and dugo-dugogangs reign supreme. It could be funny in a B-movie villain kind of way. Except when the context sinks in. Taberna’s source says President Aquino knew of the incident. He sent his Presidential Security Group (PSG) to stand guard over Robredo’s offices. Mrs. Robredo requested Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, among her husband’s close friends in the Cabinet, to secure his personal papers. I remember the flurry of activity around that time. Tempers heated up when journalists were barred from interviewing aides and officials who could explain the presence of the PSG. De Lima explained about Leni’s request, but not the reason for the urgency. Taberna’s sources claim Robredo had been investigating Puno when his plane crashed.

Two weeks before the crash, Robredo allegedly informed the President of the investigation.

This makes the glaring omission more serious. And since even after the President announced Roxas as Robredo’s successor, Puno has been riding high:

The President has remained silent. And we don’t know what to make of all this. Surely he’s not waiting for the two factions in his Cabinet — “Balay” under Roxas and “Samar” under Vice President Jejomar Binay and Ochoa — to go to war and see who survives to take the spoils? This isn’t just about internal squabbling. This is about accountability. The President must tell the public whether or not Robredo had informed him of the investigation into Puno. Otherwise those conspiracy theories that spread in the days following the crash could flare up again. Maybe due process prevented the President from sidelining Puno after learning of the Robredo probe. But for Puno  to remain in place even after his aborted attempts to raid Robredo’s papers, calls into question the government’s commitment to tuwid na dawn. There doesn’t seem any doubt about Puno’s August 19 activity. It comes very close to obstruction of justice, generally recognized as criminal efforts to interfere  with the work of police, investigators, regulatory agencies, prosecutors etc. In the Philippine context, obstruction of justice includes this:

b. Altering, destroying, suppressing or concealing any paper, record, document, or object with intent to impair its verity, authenticity, legibility, availability, or admissibility as evidence in any investigation of or official proceedings in criminal cases, or to be used in the investigation of, or official proceedings in, criminal cases.

The possibility of obstruction of justice is among the reasons allowed in preventive suspension. This reviewer on public officers by Atty. Edwin Sandoval, states:

Imposed during the pendency of an administrative investigation, preventive suspension is not a penalty in itself.  It is merely a measure of precaution so that the employee who is charged may be separated, for obvious reasons, from the scene of his alleged misfeasance while the same is being investigated.  Thus preventive suspension is distinct from the administrative penalty of removal from office such as the one mentioned in Sec. 8(d) of P.D. No. 807.  While the former may be imposed on a respondent during the investigation of the charges against him, the latter is the penalty which may only be meted upon him at the termination of the investigation or the final disposition of the case.  (Beja, Sr. v. CA, 207 SCRA 689, March 31, 1992 [Romero])

Sandoval underscores:

Preventive suspension pending investigation is not a penalty.  It is a measure intended to enable the disciplining authority to investigate charges against respondent by preventing the latter from intimidating or in any way influencing witnesses against him.  If the investigation is not finished and a decision is not rendered within that period, the suspension will be lifted and the respondent will automatically be reinstated.  If after investigation respondent is found innocent of the charges and is exonerated, he should be reinstated.  However, no compensation was due for the period of preventive suspension pending investigation.  The Civil Service Act of 1959(R.A. No. 2260) providing for compensation in such a case once the respondent was exonerated was revised in 1975 and the provision on the payment of salaries during suspension was deleted.

UNTOUCHABLE? Puno’s confidence probably isn’t misplaced. Filipinos learned during the Quirino hostage crisis, just how Robredo had been sidelined. (Jesse said he was “out of the loop” during the hostage crisis). Puno was there, as head of the national crisis committee. But the fact-finding body created by Mr. Aquino absolved him of any wrong-doing — because he wasn’t supposed to head that committee. This is what it said:

National or Local Crisis

The authorities considered the crisis a local crisis and therefore handled by the local CMC of Manila.  The basic parameter being that the locality where the crisis is occurring will determine which CMC has jurisdiction.  Thus, the crisis was handled by Mayor Lim as the Chairperson of the Manila CMC.  It appeared that at no point was the elevation to the status as a national crisis considered even while practically all the hostages were foreign nationals and even while representatives from foreign embassies or consular offices were already involved. The Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) on Crisis Situations does not have clear parameters on when, or under what circumstances, should a crisis be elevated to national status. It is also not clear as to which agency, or who in the bureaucracy, will initiate the elevation of the crisis to national status.  Will it be by endorsement or initiative of the local CMC or will the elevation be through a “take over process” initiated by the national agency concerned? It is also not clear on what is the scope of the authority of the CMC.  Is it advisory or does it make a decision based on consensus of the members of the CMC which decision is then to be implemented by the Ground Commander?

Undersecretary Rico E. Puno

Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Rico Puno revealed that he was the caretaker of the national crisis management committee, and that the local crisis committee was headed by Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, although Puno said that he did not receive any order activating the local CMC.  During the entire course of the hostage incident, he admitted getting in touch with the local CMC three to four times only. Usec. Puno cannot and should not have acted as “caretaker” of the national crisis committee because the rule provides for the following organizational structure to which his position as Undersecretary is not found… It is the conclusion of the Committee that, the improper assumption by Usec. Puno of the functions of the Secretary of DILG as the chairman of the National Crisis Committee, in the light of his admitted lack of training and experience, may have compromised the readiness of the national CMC to take over the responsibility when it became apparent that the local CMC could not properly handle the hostage situation. That readiness could have been the immediate answer to the worsening situation. Puno’s failure to call upon the other members of the national CMC to be on standby reflects this lack of capacity. While he may have good intentions, rules must still be followed, and the organizational structure of the national CMC must be maintained. (boldfont mine)

Which makes you wonder about the legal minds who gave Puno that power and why the Palace never acknowledged that it had erred in giving Puno that power. Jueteng Malacanang was quick to defend Puno in the Quirino hostage crisis aftermath, as quick as they sniffed with disdain at Robredo.

Presidential Communications Operations Secretary Herminio “Sonny” Coloma said Puno has the experience and skill to oversee various agencies under the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) such as the Philippine National Police, the Bureau of Fire Protection, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, and the Philippine Public Safety College…. Coloma said critics who question Puno’s leadership skills should “justify their claim”.

Mr. Aquino himself personally defended Puno and then Philippine National Police chief Jesus Verzosa, as on old scarredcat  post notes:

In the aftermath of the hostage crisis, Mr. Aquino spoke scathingly in public of local police officials who botched the rescue of Hong Kong tourists. But he defended Puno, who had claimed to have been his eyes and ears, and Verzosa, who had left Manila just before the standoff entered its bloody end-phase. Of Puno and Verzosa, Mr. Aquino said their big contributions to his anti-corruption campaign should be given weight rather than the lone debacle of the hostage crisis. Yet the Ombudsman has charged Verzosa’s wife among those who illegally tried to bring personal funds to Europe during an October 2008 Interpol congress in Russia. Given the Ombudsman’s charges, the testimony of Verzosa before a Senate inquiry, that the 105 euros (P6.5 million) were from the police vaults, merited new scrutiny. Yet on this and other controversial issues, Mr. Aquino has remained mum.

The hostage crisis was followed by an even more sordid event, involving links to illegal gambling lords. In a Senate probe of jueteng operations in the country, Puno (who had been named by a bishop as among the alleged protectors of jueteng lords) admitted talking to jueteng lords’ emissaries — his friendsHere’s another scarrecat post around that time

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.

Puno’s memory was so faulty he even forgot to remember Robredo was nominally his boss:

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.)

photo courtesy of wn.com

We will not know, until the government offers information, just what Robredo was probing. Some newspapers have claimed it was jueteng. Other newspapers say Roxas has mentioned Puno in the same breath as jueteng. I only know that the government cannot afford to pretend that the events of August 19 did not occur or pretend Puno had no involvement. Puno isn’t just anyone. He is one of the President’s most trusted friends.

Here is Puno’s background:

Puno’s curriculum vitae, which the Presidential Communications Office gave to journalists, shows that the DILG deputy chief was a “long-time consultant” of then-Senator Benigno Aquino III in the upper chamber’s Committee on Public Order and Safety and Dangerous Drugs and Special Oversight on Economic Affairs body. According to the document, Puno “reviewed and analyzed the pertinent laws and polices of the Dangerous Drugs Board,” and advised Aquino in the Senate Committee on Public Order and Safety. He also served as the “overall ground commander” in Aquino’s 2007 senatorial campaign. Puno was president of Far East Ballistics Corporation from 1992 to 1995, where “he implemented polices for improvement and development in the production of ammunition.” He was also board member of the National Range Officers Institute at Philippine Practical Shooting Association, and was involved in the staging of shooting competitions in the country and abroad.

My 2010 post on jueteng ended with a question: Does Mr. Puno realize what his statements say of Mr. Aquino? Does he even care? Today, we have to ask the President: Sir, do you realize what silence in the face of Puno’s actions says?  UPDATE A follow up report has Leni Robredo confirming the attempt to enter their QC residence:  Verbatim from abs-cbnnews.com: “Totoo yon na yung kasambahay namin sa Manila, siya lang yung naiwan sa bahay dahil umuwi yung mga anak ko. Tumawag ng Augsut 19 nagsasabing may mga tao, hindi niya sinabi kung sino, may mga taong gustong pumasok at may hinihingi na mga papeles. Parang nagtatanong siya sa akin kung papapasukin niya. Ang sabi ko hindi,” she recalled. “Tamang-tama katabi ko si [Social Welfare] Secretary Dinky [Soliman]. Nagpatulong na ako at ipinaubaya ko na kay Secretary Dinky yung pag-asikaso ng problema. Until now, hindi ko pa nababalikan,” she added. Robredo said she also asked the help of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima who later secured documents at the condo unit. “Kung may sensitive documents dun, hindi magiging secure ang mga tao dun kung babalik-balikan sila,” she said.

And here’s De Lima claiming she knows nothing about the raid, again verbatim from abs-cbn.com

“I don’t have that report… I’m not in the position to confirm anything on that… I’m just heeding the request of Mrs. Robredo to secure documents na meron sa condo. Magtatanong tanong lang muna ako siguro about that. Sa mga ganyang report na may pumunta doon, I’m not privy to that,” De Lima said.

De Lima added that she has no idea about what documents Puno’s group was reportedly attempting to obtain. She added that the matter is not under the jurisdiction of the Dept. of Justice (DOJ), thus, any probe into the reported attempted raid will not involve the department.

An ABS-CBN News source bared the documents may have pertained to an ongoing investigation Robredo was conducting on Puno and several Philippine National Police (PNP) officials.

A Double Standard of Justice: The Gerry Ortega case


Executive Secretary Jojo Ochoa issued a call today, on the eve of Earth Day, to care more for Mother Nature. Meanwhile, Malacanang spits on the soul of a fallen environmental warrior. Here’s why:

A couple on months back, the nation was glued to the spectacle of government operatives barring former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from leaving the country. The incident happened in the absence of any hold order on the much-maligned former Chief Executive. There was no hold order because no court had yet issued an arrest warrant for her. In fact, no case against Mrs. Arroyo had even reached the courts yet. What the government had was a watchlist order (WLO) on President Benigno Aquino’s predecessor. This watchlist order was the subject of a Supreme Court temporary restraining order (TRO) — a  TRO that Justice Secretary Leila de Lima refused to implement.

I will not discuss the merits of the TRO or the WLO — the latter the same weapon Mrs. Arroyo had wielded against her political opposition. The TRO later became part of the Aquino administration’s impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Renato Corona. Mrs. Arroyo has since been arraigned and remains in hospital arrest due to an ailment affecting the spine. The Chief Justice is still battling it out in his impeachment trial.

The administration is confident the Senate impeachment court will find Corona guilty. Majority of Filipinos think he could be guilty, but prefer to leave the decision to the sentor-judges. The latter — which has been borne out survey after survey — is not making Mr. Aquino or his allies happy. There has been plenty of talk about we, the people, waging war against the CJ in the name of Justice. But this isn’t about Mrs. Arroyo or the Chief Justice. It is about this administration’s warped view on justice. It is about amazing leaps of logic and disturbing signs that more than hint that, indeed, some in this benighted nation are more equal than others.

In January 2010, a gunman killed Palawan environmentalist Gerry Ortega. It was daylight. It was in a crowded second-hand clothes shop; Gerry was buying clothes for his offspring.

Alert townfolk managed to corner the suspect. He squealed. Shortly after, three others were arrested: two lookouts and the recruiter, Rodolfo Edrad, a former bodyguard of former Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes. Edrad confessed that the gun used in Ortega’s slay belonged to  Romeo Seratubias, former provincial administrator. Seratubias did not deny this during the preliminary investigation.

The Justice Department initially dismissed the charges against Seratubias, Reyes and his brother, Coron Mayor Mario Reyes Jr., and two aides. The Secretary of the Justice inhibited from the case. De Lima was once election lawyer for the former governor.

Ortega’s kin, environmentalists and media groups refused to back down. The discovery of 84 text messages between the former governor and Edrad at around the time of the murder finally forced a re-investigation. State prosecutors eventually filed murder raps against the brothers and their cohorts.

On Tuesday, the regional trial court in Palawan issued arrest warrants for Reyes and company. By that time, he had disappeared. His brother had bid farewell to fellow local politicians in Coron.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) launched a manhunt. But a day after, Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo did the unthinkable. He said the government would give Reyes until the end of the week to surrender.

It was an irresponsible statement to make. There was a legitimate arrest warrant. The case was murder, under circumstances showing great willingness by suspects to ruthlessly punish their enemies. Murder is a non-bailable crime. The cops were on a manhunt, for god’s sake.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines was “aghast” at Robredo’s move.

“What Robredo is in effect doing is ordering law enforcement agencies not to obey the lawful order of the Palawan regional trial court to place the Reyes brothers under arrest and stand trial for the Ortega murder.

What right does he have, what authority, to openly issue such an order in defiance of our laws?

Surely Robredo knows that our law enforcers are in possession of the warrants, having already served one on former Palawan provincial administrator Romeo Seratubias.

Neither can we imagine that Robredo is unaware that every day the warrants are not served increases the chances of the Reyes brothers escaping justice, either by actual flight or by allowing their lawyers to delay their arrest and trial.”

The following day, Thursday, Reyes came out defiant, saying he would take his sweet time.

“Haharapin ko sa takdang oras ang mga paratang at akusasyon na ito. Nandito lang ako sa inyong piling, nagtatago sa inyong puso. Hindi ko tatakbuhan ang hustisya ngunit para maiwasan ang patuloy na pang-aapi at pag-aalipusta at pagbibintang ng walang basehan,” he said.

As if that wasn’t enough of an insult against Lady Justice and Ortega’s heirs, Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda — a lawyer — gave the Palace stamp of approval on Robredo’s order. If you think the DILG Secretary’s move is outrageous, Lacierda’s justification will make you puke. This morning Lacierda explained the deferment as a sign OF DEFERENCE TO HIS (Reyes’) POSITION AS A FORMER GOVERNOR.

It is breath-taking in its ignorance of the law. It is breath-taking in its display of entitlement.

As I’m ending the blog, I get word that Malacanang has turned around. The manhunt is on. Again.

That’s small consolation. But it doesn’t erase the fact that an alter-ego of the President, his spokesman no less, has given us a glimpse into their heart of darkness.