By Marvin Sy
The Philippine Star
MANILA, Philippines – It was a family vacation, and not a junket sponsored by an arms dealer.
Resigned interior and local government undersecretary Rico Puno said he was on leave between May 11 and May 18 this year when he and his family went to Jerusalem for a vacation.
He explained that at the airport in Israel, he saw a friend, a certain retired general Santiago, who invited him to a test firing of some rifles.
Puno was apparently referring to retired police Special Action Force chief Leocadio Santiago.
“Being an enthusiast myself, I joined him for one day only and I continued on,” Puno said.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who chairs the Senate committee on constitutional amendments that was “evaluating” the former undersecretary, revealed that Puno went to Israel last May, where he was said to have visited the factory of Israel Military Industry (IMI). The Philippine representative of the company was earlier disqualified as a bidder in the Philippine National Police (PNP) program to procure handguns.
Santiago cited media reports indicating that Puno had conducted an ocular inspection of the arms manufacturer’s facility in Tel Aviv despite his being reportedly not authorized to engage in the arms transaction.
Puno claimed he was just an observer in the bids and awards committee (BAC) of the PNP because of his position as the undersecretary for peace and order of the DILG.
Santiago asked why his consultant Ramiro Lopez was with him on that trip.
Santiago said Lopez’s joining the trip was suspicious because the latter had sat in meetings of the Philippine National Police’s Bids and Awards Committee (PNP-BAC) evaluating gun suppliers.
Puno explained that Lopez has had several tasks as his consultant, including doing research on some items being procured by the PNP and arranging some of his trips.
Puno stressed Lopez paid for his own trip.
“Yayo siya ng pamilya mo (Is he your family’s nanny)? You are going on a private holiday and you are with your consultant? You are testing my level of belief with your assertions,” Santiago said.
“I have been around for such a long time, I am older than you and yet I have never traveled with a nanny. You were with your wife and children and you have a nanny too? Are you that rich?” Santiago said.
Santiago told Puno that he should lend her his consultant the next time she travels overseas since he can buy his own ticket and look after her in her trips.
“I will tell him,” Puno said in response.
Relatives in gov’t
Also at the hearing, Santiago revealed that five close relatives of Puno, including a daughter, were appointed to government positions in the Aquino administration.
Santiago quipped that the presence of several Puno family members in government is a strong argument for the passage of the Reproductive Health (RH) bill.
“Ang dami nang Puno, ah. Kaya kailangan na talaga siguro ang RH bill (There are so many Punos already. Maybe we really need the RH bill),” she said.
Santiago said she got hold of a letter from an anonymous sender, listing Puno relatives given government jobs by the Aquino administration.
“We, politicians, are habituated to receive these anonymous complaints. Sometimes, they are talking through their hats. But this letter can be either confirmed or denied with respect to the factual details that it supplies,” Santiago said.
Puno, once acknowledged by President Aquino as his “eyes and ears” in the DILG, admitted that his daughter Romina is employed at the Bureau of Immigration (BI). Romina earlier attacked her father’s critics in her blog.
“Our family never once used this so-called ‘power’ or unique relationship with the President for our advantage,” “Inna” wrote in the blog.
Puno said Romina is a consultant for BI but that she got the job without his help. He claimed he was not aware of the exact nature of her work at the BI.
Puno’s brother Patrick Escalona Puno was appointed vice president for procurement at the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. but resigned in December 2010.
Adolfo Escalona, a cousin of Puno, is executive director in the Road Board, which has control over huge funds collected from motorists.
“Why does that phrase ring bells and whistles in my head?” Santiago said, referring to the Road Board.
Marco Puno Santiago, a nephew of Puno, is an assistant secretary at the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office of Malacañang.
Another cousin of Puno, Maria Angela Escalona Ignacio, was appointed commissioner of the newly created Governance Commission for GOCCs under the Department of Finance. She was also said to be a director of the United Coconut Planters Bank.
Puno has another nephew, Dennis Escalona Legaspi, who works for Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara.
Based on the letter sent to Santiago, Puno has allegedly been telling his friends and associates that he would be going to the Bureau of Customs (BOC) soon.
The letter added that Puno has allegedly been badmouthing Santiago and her husband Narciso Santiago Jr. and has even vowed to “destroy” the senator’s cousin, deputy Customs commissioner Horacio Suansing Jr. when he assumes his new position in the BOC. Santiago responded that if Suansing is removed by December, it would not be because of Puno.
Puno denied that he had said anything about anyone since his resignation as DILG undersecretary.
“Just like what has happened to me, that is all hearsay and lies,” Puno told the senators.