The Manila Times - Customs, Comelec and the courts: In or out?

31 August 2017

By Ricardo Saludo | The Manila Times 

ONE down, two to go? Not quite. The ouster of Bureau of Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s insistence on the resigned BoC chief’s honesty, does not in any way point to a similar fate for Commission on Elections Chairman Andres Bautista or Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
For one obvious thing, replacing Faeldon with Gen. Isidro Lapeña, erstwhile executive director of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), required presidential action, not the House impeachment and Senate trial needed to remove impeachable officials of the Comelec and the Supreme Court.

For another, the alleged failings of Bautista and Sereno would be harder to prove than the indisputable incompetence, if not collusion, shown by Faeldon in botching the seizure of 605 kilograms of shabu worth P6 billion and failing to charge any suspects for months.

Not to mention the easy and uninspected entry of the contraband through BoC’s green lane, which is directly administered by the Command Center unit directly under Faeldon.

On the other hand, Bautista’s alleged failure to declare some four-fifths of bank deposits and property said to be in his name, would take a while to even explain, let alone prove.

Even more obscure, at least for the general public, are the extravagance, psychological deficiency, and document fraud said to have been committed by Sereno.

Plus: impeachment has acquired a nasty flavor since the past administration greased the process with pork barrel funds, to oust then-President Benigno Aquino’s perceived adversaries.

Then-Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez was accused of favoring former President Gloria Arroyo; she quit after the House voted to impeach her. CJ Renato Corona faced a Senate trial, and was convicted of failing to declare wealth in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth, which under the law could have been corrected without penalty.

Yet both were shown the door, amid billions of pesos in reported payoffs. Filipinos would not be keen to see another such episode again.

We need reform, not impeachment

What the people really want, and the nation needs, is real reform in Customs, Comelec and the courts. Not necessarily the removal of their heads, although if those chiefs are incapable of deep change, then they may have to go.

In Faeldon’s case, if he and his Magdalo clique of ex-mutineers were too steeped in graft, as alleged by Sen. Panfilo Lacson in his privilege speech, then they simply would not have the moral authority to clean up the BoC. So, they had to go, and another commissioner untainted by Customs sleaze needs to take over.

At Comelec, meanwhile, the need to address grave computerized breaches—from the hacking of 56 million voter information and biometrics, to alleged vote counting and canvassing anomalies in all three computerized polls—won’t happen if the commission leadership won’t admit these failings.

And that denial may be the bigger problem with Bautista, not his unexplained and undeclared wealth. Since he may be administratively and even criminally liable for both the theft of voter ID data and alleged miscounting in last year’s elections, the chairman simply won’t ’fess up. And with no fault admitted, no fix is made.

Further on the Comelec, two Aquino-appointed commissioners, Christian Robert Lim and Arthur Lim, retire in February, so there will be new blood to push change.

However, three months before the planned May 2018 polls may be too short to make substantive reforms before what could be the most crucial voting exercise in decades, with constitutional amendments and the Bangsamoro Basic Law possibly being subjected to referendum.

As for Chief Justice Sereno, with her judicial reform roadshow in Metro Manila malls and later, elsewhere in the country, her message is that change is already happening, so why oust her?

The question, however, is whether Sereno commands ample respect among judges and Congress to drive sweeping change. The charges against her, especially psychological deficiency as well as misrepresentation in purportedly en banc resolutions of the Supreme Court, cannot but erode that respect.

If those charges stick, then Sereno’s stature may suffer so much that she can no longer drive change.

Will Congress oust?
Whether Bautista and Sereno should go or not, the practical question, of course, is whether Congress can muster the votes. Both officials wield considerable power, so that few elected legislators, if any, would openly try to oust them without assurance of success.

For if any congressmen and senators move against the Chief Justice and the Comelec chairman, and fail to remove them, life at the hustings and the courts would get pretty tough.

One Sereno ally contends that 15 senators offer solid support for her, in case she faces trial in the Senate. That can change if impeachment actually advances in the House. But the whole process would be a struggle if Sereno fights it out.

So, where does this leave electoral and judicial reform? Well, pretty much where it is now: stalled by infighting and the disruption of impeachment and controversy.

Thankfully, there is something that could push change, whoever are at the helm of both the Comelec and the judiciary: the election protest of losing vice-presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

If this protest prospers, then it may unearth the failings in our automated elections for all the nation to see, and possibly drive needed reform in time for next year’s envisioned polls.

As for the Supreme Court, adjudicating the protest as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, will show how impartial, just, and efficient the magistrates and their offices are in handling a complex, tedious case.

If they falter, then it would show what needs to be done not just at the high court, but more so in lesser courts nationwide. And if the PET resolves the case with dispatch and justice, then whatever it did should be replicated in all courts.

Get the Marcos protest right, and that would go a long way to setting things right at the Comelec and the courts—whoever are at the top.