SEN. Panfilo Lacson on Wednesday presented a contractual employee of the Bureau of Customs who corroborated customs “fixer” Mark Taguba’s claims about the existence of the “tara” (payoff) system at the bureau.
At the resumption of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee inquiry into alleged corruption at the bureau on Wednesday, May Escoto, a staff member of Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service (CIIS) Division chief Joel Pinawin, said she personally handed envelops, believed to have contained money, to Pinawin.
Taguba, during the previous committee hearing, presented text messages, phone records, and bank transactions proving that Pinawin and former CIIS Director Neil Anthony Estrella got payoffs.
She said she first met Taguba in March when he visited their office and had a meeting with her boss.
Escoto said she personally handed the envelops from Taguba to Pinawin on April 7, 21 and May 5.
She said she was instructed by Pinawin on April 7 to remind Taguba about the payoffs for himself and a certain director at the bureau.
“I said, ‘Happy morning, Sir Joel would like to remind you about what’s in store for him and the director,’” Escoto told senators, referring to the text message she sent to Taguba.
She was then instructed to do the same on April 21 and on May 5, and these all involved Taguba handing two brown envelops intended for Pinawin.
Escoto said she never opened the envelops but believed they contained money.
There was even a time when Pinawin asked her to give him her mobile phone subscriber identity module or SIM card, and gave her money to buy a new one.
Pinawin, who was present in the hearing, denied Escoto’s claims and even accused her and Taguba of conspiring against him.
“Everything May said was a lie,” said Pinawin.
He told the committee that Escoto’s husband, Ricardo Carvajal, is a staff member of Taguba and a columnist in Taguba’s newspaper being circulated at the bureau.
Meeting with ‘players’
The committee also learned that former Customs commissioner Nicanor Faeldon had a meeting with known “players” in the bureau several days after he assumed his post last year.
According to Ruben Taguba Sr., father of the fly-by-night broker Mark Taguba, he was present when Faeldon met with customs brokers on July 4, 2016 supposedly to discuss some issues at the bureau.
Present in the meeting were David Tan, Tina Yu, the Teves brothers (Joel, Janjan and Ringo) and the Tolentino group (Armando and Ruel), he claimed.
These brokers were earlier named by Lacson as bribe-givers or players at the bureau in a privilege speech.
“Actually, Attorney Alcaraz was the one who informed me about the meeting with the brokers,” the older Taguba said, referring to former customs deputy commissioner for enforcement Arnel Alcaraz.
Lacson said he found the meeting suspicious. “If you want to get information you can talk to one or two players in confidence. But calling almost all the players, what is your intention?” Lacson added.
The senator asked Customs Commissioner Isidro Lapeña if he had plans or if he had gathered customs “players” in a meeting.
“I don’t have that plan, as of this time,” Lapeña said.
Faeldon, who is detained at the Senate, refuses to attend the committee hearing to protest Lacson’s “character assassination.”
New tax credit scam?
Lapeña on Wednesday disclosed that the tax credit scheme being implemented at the bureau could be a source of the “pasalubong” or welcome gift given to new commissioners.
He told senators that he learned about it after some personnel of the bureau told him about the supposed racket in the release of tax credit certificates (TCC).
“It could be the excess payment of tariff or duties … or refund due to cancellation of imports, or VAT (value-added tax) input, or output tax that have to be refunded back to the company,” the Customs chief said.
Lapeña said some customs officials made money by negotiating the release of TCCs with companies and getting a 3- to 7-percent cut.
He said that before learning about the TCC racket, he had been receiving and signing bundles of folders for tax credits.
He said he immediately ordered the recall of TCCs and conducted an investigation to find out if the information given to him was true.
Liza Sebastian, former head of the bureau’s tax credit committee, however said it was unlikely for the TCC to be the source of “pasalubong” because it was given to companies as credit and not cash.
“Commissioner, sorry but it doesn’t work that way,” Sebastian said.
But she admitted it was possible for someone to earn money by facilitating the release of TCCs, especially if these were worth millions.
Lacson said it was possible a portion of the welcome gift was obtained from the TCC racket.
He said he made a mistake when he accused Faeldon of getting a P100-million welcome gift. The amount could have been larger because of the supposed TCC racket, he claimed.