By Perry Diaz
Reputed to be President Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III’s shooting buddy, Rico Puno, the indomitable Undersecretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) was untouchable. Indeed, regardless of what people said about – or against – Puno, he simply couldn’t be touched by anyone. And I mean, no one. Not even his boss, the late DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, could tell him what to do. Although Puno was subordinate to Robredo, he didn’t report to him. He reported directly to P-Noy. That was the arrangement P-Noy made when he appointed Puno to his job on July 12, 2010. That was then.
But the untimely death of Robredo from a plane crash last August 18 changed all that. Not that Puno moved up to take his boss’ job, which he didn’t, but because of what he did in the aftermath of Robredo’s passing. He did something that provoked public outcry, which led to his downfall.
But his downfall was not unexpected; it was already in the works. As it turned out, Robredo had ordered an investigation into anomalous procurements in which Puno was allegedly involved – arms deal.
The investigation into the questionable arms deal might have gone into limbo – at least momentarily — with the demise of Robredo if Puno just stayed put. But while searchers were still looking for Robredo’s body in the waters off the province of Masbate where the plane crashed into the sea, Puno and a team of police officers reportedly tried to search Robredo’s office for certain documents and also attempted to enter Robredo’s condo unit at the Lansbergh Place condominium building in Quezon City. And that’s when all hell broke loose!
On August 18, 2012, on the night of the plane crash, Puno attended a meeting at Camp Crame with Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Director Nicanor Bartolome, Supt. Oliver Tanseco Jr., and several staff members of Robredo. It was reported in the news that Puno received a call from P-Noy instructing him to secure Robredo’s office and condo.
On August 19, Puno and his men went to the National Police Commission headquarters, but did not enter Robredo’s office. Members of the Presidential Security Guard (PSG) were already deployed on the premises. They then went to Robredo’s condo unit and tried to enter the condo unit but the Robredos’ house-help barred them from entering. Tanseco called Robredo’s lawyer Nina Rances to ask permission, but she turned them down because they did not have a search warrant. Meanwhile, the house-help called Leni, Robredo’s wife, who then called Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to seek her assistance in securing the office and the condo unit.
On August 20 and 21, De Lima, on her own initiative, went to Robredo’s office and condo to personally pick up the “personal and official documents” as requested by Leni Robredo.
Last September 8, while P-Noy was attending the 20th Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vladivostok, Russia, it was reported on ANC News that he admitted that he ordered Puno to secure the office of Robredo, shortly after Robredo died in the plane crash. However, he denied ordering Puno to go to Robredo’s condo unit. This counters Tanseco’s claim that P-Noy ordered a “lockdown” of Robredo’s condo.
The question is: Why did Puno go to Robredo’s condo unit purportedly to secure “sensitive” documents in the possession of Robredo?
As it turned out, prior to his death, Robredo initiated an investigation of a questionable arms procurement. Although Malacañang confirmed that Robredo was conducting “very sensitive investigations” before his death, it did not say if Puno was under investigation. However, it was reported that Robredo was “believed to be investigating jueteng and an anomalous arms deal before his death and that confidential documents on the investigation were reportedly kept inside Robredo’s condo.”
Recently, Malacañang announced that an anomalous P391-million procurement of assault rifles for the police had been scrapped. However, it emphasized that the investigation will continue to dispel any notion that it was to cover up Puno. The arms deal involved the procurement of 1,800 Israeli-made assault rifles. It was alleged that Puno wanted the deal exempted from public bidding. As it turned out, the price negotiated with the Israeli supplier was overpriced at twice the market price of P40,000 each.
But the questionable arms deal was just the tip of the iceberg. Jueteng, the illegal numbers game, is on the rise again. Contrary to claims made by the PNP, jueteng is flourishing under P-Noy’s watch.
In my article, “Jueteng Payola Exposed” (September 13, 2010), I wrote: “P-Noy, who campaigned on a slogan, ‘Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap’ (No corruption, no poverty), was gung-ho on eradicating jueteng when he assumed office. In fact, when his new DILG Secretary Robredo took over, P-Noy issued “marching orders” to stop jueteng. But in a sudden change of plans, P-Noy announced the following day that jueteng was not a priority in his administration. Robredo later acknowledged that his “new assignment” was to concentrate on local government while DILG Undersecretary Rico E. Puno — P-Noy’s long-time friend whom he appointed several days before Robredo — was given direct and sole jurisdiction over the PNP. In essence, DILG was split into two: local government under Robredo and security under Puno. Makes one wonder if Robredo was deliberately taken out of the loop on police matters.”
With jueteng a non-priority for P-Noy and anti-jueteng crusader Robredo gone, the illegal numbers game would proliferate. And with Puno – who was alleged to have strong ties with jueteng lords – still in charge of police matters, this could be the advent of an era of vice and corruption.
But the good news is Malacañang announced last September 11 that Puno has tendered his resignation, saying, “Moving forward, I have resigned as (DILG) undersecretary to support the President’s decision to give a free hand to the incoming secretary in forming a new team.” Yes, Mr. Puno, it’s about time you left.