THERE is nothing new in politics. There are only ingenious reinventions and transmutations of the wheel. If you have spent some time observing politics and politicians as I have, you will learn this basic truth—that many quarrels, arguments and dust-ups between public figures fall into a pattern.
The contest is essentially a power struggle–one side trying to get an advantage over the other. Each side employs tactics and strategies that have been tried before. Whether you’re fighting over the presidency of a nation, or the presidency of a company, or the leadership of a club, your objective is to achieve power by stealing the other side’s thunder. You try to defeat your rival by taking away from him the issue that gives him momentum. And if you stumble into a scandal that will hurt your rival, well then, you can go to town.
I think of this lesson in politics as I look at the high-profile exchange of charges between Senator Panfilo Lacson, and recently retired customs commissioner Nicanor Faeldon.
This looks to me like a feud that could last years, especially if it heads to court. What new revelations or charges will unfold? Will no one have the last word?
Lacson the accuser
Let’s begin with the protagonists.
`There is, first, Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who is no stranger to fiery arguments with other public officials. He has built his public persona as the accuser of wrongdoing and dishonesty in government by public officials and employees.
Last Wednesday, in a privilege speech in the Senate, Lacson accused former commissioner Faeldon and dozens of Customs employees of receiving tara, or bribes for the clearing of shipments by the bureau. He tagged them all as involved in bribery and smuggling operations at the Customs. He accused them of being responsible for the supply of drugs in the Philippines, branding them as a “smuggling mafia.”
In addition, Lacson alleged that Faeldon accepted a P100-million bribe upon taking the post of Customs commissioner as a “welcome gift” last year.
Faeldon promptly denied the charge, saying that he never accepted tara or asked anyone to collect it for him.
Faeldon fires back
Within 24 hours, Faeldon, true to his background as a Marine, delivered his stinging reply, at a press conference in his home in Taytay, Rizal, which was noticeably modest.
Faeldon lashed back at Lacson by exposing the senator’s son and namesake Panfilo “Pampi” Lacson, Jr., as a smuggler of “cement worth billions of pesos” into the country, resulting in massive losses to the government.
At the press conference, Faeldon said that as a private citizen, he will be filing smuggling charges against the senator’s son for smuggling 67 shipments of “smuggled” cement belonging to a company called Bonjourno Trading which he said is owned by Lacson Jr.
Faeldon backed up his accusation with documents to prove that Lacson’s son was into cement smuggling. Faeldon said the first shipment containing 6,000 metric tons of cement and valued at P34 million arrived on July 12, 2016.
“Another shipment with 5,202 metric tons of cement valued at P29.3 million came on July 13 and a third on July 15, with 13,000 metric tons valued at P106 million. A fourth shipment was brought to Legaspi City, with 4,250 metric tons valued at P24 million,” he said.
Faeldon said that from the prevailing $16 to $20 market rate, the firm wanted to pay only $8. He said “Bonjourno” wanted to pay only 50 percent of the freight cost.
The former customs chief also disclosed that when he checked on the company profile of “Bonjourno,” he found out that in 2015, the company only had a paid-up capital of P20,000.
“How can he afford P106 million in just three days? Three ships of shipment but, ladies and gentlemen, these are only initially three ships,” he said.
Faeldon said the fact that Lacson Jr. was undervaluing his cargo is a clear case of smuggling.
He stressed that the son’s smuggling activities and their imminent exposure was the reason why Senator Lacson wanted him out of the bureau.
The resigned customs chief also asked Senator Lacson if he himself was a customs player.
“We have now the evidence, sir. This is what you should worry about, sir, because we are nearing, we are getting close to exposing you,” Faeldon said.
Faeldon also disclosed that the Cement Manufacturers of the Philippines has labeled Bonjourno as the alleged top smuggler of cement in the country.
Where does it go from here?
Senator Lacson quickly denied Faeldon’s charges: “He (Faeldon) should have filed charges against my son if he is into smuggling. It doesn’t make sense that I will expose the shenanigans in the BoC if my son is cheating on taxes as Faeldon is now accusing him of. The logical thing for me to do is not to make the exposé and to just keep quiet.”
He added: “For the record, I have always reminded my son to be on the level in whatever business dealings he would have because if not, I’ll be the first one to castigate him and even initiate the filing of charges against him.”
But Lacson, Jr. himself has not surfaced to deny the charges. His billion-peso company has kept silent. This makes the public think that he may really be a smuggler.
Several senators rallied behind Lacson, assuring him of their belief in his uprightness. They swore to oppose any investigation by the Senate of Lacson, Jr.’s alleged smuggling activities.
The disinterest is suspicious.
Lacson declared that he does not owe Faeldon any apology as he stood his ground on his exposé and will not defend his son on the alleged smuggling activities.
Yet Faeldon has never asked for an apology; he means to expose his accuser.
Who can the public believe?
It’s a case of charge vs counter-charge. It will come down to who can substantiate his charges. Or, who is more credible to the public.
Lacson superficially has the edge because of his public record of living off exposés.
But there was an ominous note last week when it was pointed out that Lacson based his litany of charges on “whispers” made to him by people supposedly in the know about corruption in the customs bureau. He has not documented any of his charges.
In contrast, Faeldon waved documents before the media when he leveled his accusations against father and son.
There is also talk that Lacson is preparing now for another run for the presidency in 2022. The smuggling issue against his family could be ruinous for his plans.
Lacson may also have to contend with public cynicism about public officials in general, which could now also engulf him.
As an official who is perennially accusing others of being dishonest, how will he fend off effectively the charge of dishonesty against his family? Will it be enough for Lacson to say that he is not responsible for his son’s business?
Ironically, this issue is a by-product of the culture of dynasty that is heavily practiced by Filipino politicians. Parents attempt to keep political power within their family by grooming their children for political careers.
Lacson has proven vulnerable also to dynastic ambitions. Lacson, Jr. himself has already run for office in past elections, although he lost.
There are some who are secretly pleased that Lacson is getting a taste of his own medicine. A politician who poses as holier than others, like a priest or evangelist disgraced, must suffer blowback when the image proves to be false.