By Marlon Ramos, Michael Lim Ubac
President Benigno Aquino’s shooting range buddy, Rico Puno, is casting a shadow over Malacañang pronouncements that Manuel Roxas has full control as the newly appointed secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).
Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa told reporters that Puno, the powerful DILG undersecretary in charge of police affairs in a power-sharing arrangement with the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, was very much in the department. “Up to now, he is still the undersecretary of the DILG,” said Ochoa, officer in charge of the DILG since the death on August 18 of Robredo in a plane crash.
“We don’t know anything about that,” said Ochoa when asked in an ambush interview after addressing the 18th National Crime Prevention Week at Camp Crame if Puno had stepped aside or been fired. Asked about reports that Roxas planned to bring in a new team to the DILG, Ochoa said: “I’m not the best person to be asked about it. But if he mentioned it, that’s probably in the ordinary course of business for somebody who will lead an agency.”
Puno, who was beside Ochoa during the event, declined to be interviewed. A gun enthusiast, Puno disappeared from public view two months into the Aquino presidency following the hostage-taking fiasco at Rizal Park on Aug. 23, 2010, that claimed the lives of eight Hong Kong tourists before international television cameras. Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda insisted in a news briefing Monday that Roxas has full authority in the department, including law enforcement agencies.
Lacierda was asked if the responsibility of Roxas covered the Philippine National Police, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology and the Bureau of Fire Prevention. “To my understanding, yes,” Lacierda replied. Asked if there would be a unified command under Roxas, Lacierda said: “That is correct.” In text messages to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said that Roxas would now occupy a “critical position,” enjoying full powers as alter ego of the President. “It is even made more powerful because of the full trust and confidence of the President on Secretary Roxas,” Abad said.
Neither Lacierda nor Abad could say whether Puno had resigned following the transfer of Roxas from the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) to the DILG as Robredo’s successor. “We have not received any official confirmation of that resignation letter. We will ask the Office of the President about that matter,” Lacierda said. A Palace official, who requested anonymity for lack of authority to speak to reporters, disclosed that Puno tendered his resignation about a month ago, effective September 1.
Lacierda could not confirm speculation that Puno would be moved to the Department of Agriculture, although the same Palace source believed that Puno would be transferred to the Clark Development Authority. The lack of clarity on exactly where Puno stands in the Aquino administration underlines divisions in the administration. Puno and Ochoa are identified with the “Samar” Group, a rival of the “Balay” faction under Roxas, referring to his family residence in Quezon City used during the 2010 presidential campaign.
The appointment papers of Roxas were submitted Monday to the bicameral Commission on Appointments for confirmation, according to Lacierda and Ochoa. Pending Roxas’ confirmation, Ochoa remains in charge of the DILG, Lacierda said.
However, the nomination of Cavite Representative Joseph Abaya as DOTC secretary, replacing Roxas, has yet to be sent to the commission, according to Lacierda. Abaya, chairman of the House appropriations committee, would likely assume the DOTC post in October after the approval of the proposed P2-trillion national budget for 2013, Lacierda said.
Over the weekend, Roxas hit the ground running, dropping by the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council office in Camp Aguinaldo to check on the government’s response to the 7.6-magnitude quake that struck the eastern seaboard on Friday.
Roxas earlier said that upon his assumption, all appointed positions in the DILG would be considered vacant—including those that are coterminous with Robredo’s tenure. “We still don’t know yet whatever the details of that arrangement. What is certain is that the President has given Secretary Mar Roxas a free hand in bringing his team to DILG,” Lacierda said.
Ochoa conceded that Roxas would be in charge of the PNP and that the President has given Roxas “a free hand if he wants to bring his own team who could help him.” Lacierda also denied that Roxas’ appointment to the DILG would create a wedge between the President and Vice President Jejomar Binay.
Lacierda said Roxas’ appointment was “to advance the nation’s interest rather than the party’s interest.”
“Certainly, it should not drive any wedge. Remember, we’ve always said … that the President was looking for someone who would continue the reforms that the President had envisioned for local governance and the police,” he said.
“There is only one family. There is only one head. The President is the head, so there should be no difficulty in the appointment of Secretary Mar Roxas to the DILG,” Lacierda said. He said it was unthinkable, however, for the Liberal Party headed by Roxas to coalesce with Binay’s United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) for the 2013 polls.
“This would have been the same thing that would have prevailed because UNA has already announced its senatorial slate and the administration is set to announce its slate. So they will be vying for a limited number of positions. So regardless of whether this unfortunate thing happened, the untimely passing of Secretary Robredo, we will have senatorial elections,” Lacierda said.