Austria: I serve at pleasure of Duterte

Co-accused says he never received report on ‘missing’ containers.

MANILA International Container Port (MICP) district collector, Atty. Erastus Sandino ‘Dino’ Austria, maintained that his continued tenure at the bureau--and the possible sanctions against him-- are now in the hands of President Rodrigo Duterte and not with Bureau of Customs (BoC) Commissioner Rey Leonardo ‘Jagger’ Guerrero.

Austria stressed this in an interview with this writer at his office last June 28, after a special committee created by Guerrero last February implicated him, his deputy collector for assessment, Florante Ricarte, and two more customs officers, over the “disappearance” last year of 641 containers coursed thru the Informal Entry Division (IED) at the Port of Manila (POM). Austria was the POM district collector at the time of the incident.

The special committee created by Guerrero under Customs Special Order (CSO) 20-2019 last February 27, was tasked, “to conduct investigation and gather information and evidence as well as take testimonies and administer oaths on BoC officials and employees and other individuals concerning the unauthorize release of shipments through the Informal Entry Division of the Port of Manila for the year 2018.”

Designated as chairman and co-chairman, respectively, were deputy commissioner for enforcement (Enforcement Group), Atty. Teddy Raval and deputy commissioner for intelligence (Intelligence Group), retired BGen. Rainiel Ramiro.

Members of the committee are Atty. Vincent Philip ‘Jett’ Maronilla, assistant commissioner, Post Clearance Audit Group (PCAG); Joeffrey Tacio, director, Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service (CIIS); Atty. Yasser Ismael Abbas, director, Import Assessment Service (IAS); and, Atty. Alvin Ebreo, director, Collection Service, Revenue Collection and Monitoring Group (RCMG).

From an initial report of 555 containers, the panel discovered the number of “manually released” containers that went missing afterwards rose to 641, sources familiar with the investigation told this writer.

The report, which recommended that Austria’s case be turned over to the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) for his being a presidential appointee, has been forwarded to Guerrero last June 3.

The PACC was formed by Duterte in 2017 to specifically investigate accusations of corruption against all his appointees.

“It is now up to the commissioner (Guerrero) to accept, modify or reject the committee’s findings and recommendations,” one of the sources said.

The source also noted that all committee members signed the report. “The decision to adopt the report and its recommendations in their entirety was unanimous.”

In separate interviews last June 28, Austria and Ricarte confirmed they appeared before the committee where they were merely asked separately to “describe” their “specific functions and responsibilities.”

Austria refused to elaborate on his statements before the panel, saying he “respects” the “sanctity of the procedures” it adopted in the course of its probe. He added he is not yet aware of the action taken by Guerrero regarding his case.

“I serve at the pleasure of my superiors,” Austria said. When asked to clarify if he is referring to Guerrero or Duterte, he replied, “Ultimately, my appointing authority (Pres Duterte).”

Ricarte, for his part, said he had already received a “charge sheet” signed by Guerrero last June 21, wherein he was cited for “neglect of duty.”

“I am asking for a copy of the report so I can answer all the accusations against me point by point.

Personally, how can I be accused of neglect of duty when I have not received any report (about the manually released containers that went missing),” Ricarte said.

Ricarte added he only gets to receive reports from the IED-POM under Gliceria Umandap about its collection performance. “Kung alam ko, pinabayaan ko, tatanggapin ko, ‘neglectful’ ako doon (but) I only get to receive the collection report. I am very confident (of exoneration), as I never received any report (about the manually released containers),” Ricarte said.

To be continued