New graft chief John Sevilla in front line against corruption at Philippines customs

A new chief is making changes at a Philippines body that has a culture of bribery and extortion

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2014, 9:58pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 September, 2014, 10:47pm

Standing near mountains of goods destined to be smuggled through the Philippines' biggest port, the nation's customs chief admits that being on the front line of the president's war on graft is overwhelming.

"I've never seen anything like it," John Sevilla said, commenting on a pervasive culture of bribery, extortion and stealing at a government agency that collects revenues equivalent to 20 per cent of the nation's budget.

"There's no secret about the fact that this is not an agency which inspires a lot of trust and confidence among our people."

But Sevilla, a former Goldman Sachs executive in Hong Kong, has bold plans for systemic changes that are showing early signs of success.

President Benigno Aquino, who has made fighting graft a central tenet of his administration, appointed Sevilla to head the bureau in December last year after launching a scathing verbal assault on customs personnel.

"Where do these people get the gall," Aquino said in his annual State of the Nation address as he accused customs staff of "heedlessly permitting the smuggling of goods, and even drugs, arms and other items". He said customs personnel's greed cost the country at least 200 billion pesos (HK$35.5 billion) in lost revenue each year - 2 per cent of the country's economic output.

Several months later, the then-customs chief quit after being charged over a corruption scandal involving the alleged theft of government funds.

He was replaced by Sevilla, then a finance undersecretary and well regarded for an earlier career with global financial giants. "I was not prepared for this. I was not prepared to come into customs at all," Sevilla said, holding his head in mock woe during a tour of customs headquarters and Manila's main port.

Tens of thousands of containers are stacked at the port, and Sevilla pointed out that overwhelmed customs staff inspect, on average, just 0.1 per cent.

He said officials taking bribes to assess lower taxes, or using their positions to extort money from importers, were the other major problems.

Customs district collectors earn the equivalent of just US$1,140-US$1,600 a month, but their jobs are highly sought after because of the lucrative corruption opportunities they offer.

Sevilla joked that the bribery was so rampant that corrupt traffic police regard customs officers as great targets for bribes. "The police will say your racket is even more lucrative than ours, so you must pay up," he said.

Part of Sevilla's strategy is old-fashioned internal law enforcement. He has placed 65 staff under investigation for irregular transactions, and another was banished to a far-flung port over persistent claims of wrongdoing.

Sevilla is also seeking to expand the 3,600-member bureau by 1,000 while bringing in new senior officials and rotating personnel in key posts so they cannot build corruption networks.

But he said the key to overhauling the agency was building transparency by bringing its outdated or non-existent computer networks into the 21st century.

Sevilla has begun publishing every single trade transaction on the bureau's website.

"It's very important to show we are not trying to hide something," he said.


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