Little did Rico E. Puno realize that when he joined the administration of his longtime friend president Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III, he would find himself the target of the Department of Justice’s investigation concerning the Luneta hostage crisis and also accused of receiving payola — or protection money — from gambling lords. What the hell happened?
Less than three months ago, Puno was as virtual unknown in Philippine government and politics. He was one of P-Noy’s closest friends and they share a common interest as gun enthusiasts.
So, it did not come as a surprise when P-Noy asked his trusted “shooting buddy” to work for him. And what a better place to put him than in a plum position overseeing the 120,000 gun-toting policemen of the Philippine National Police (PNP).
Puno’s appointment as undersecretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) was made before P-Noy could decide on his choice for secretary of DILG. To fill the void, P-Noy took over the top post at DILG temporarily while he was mulling over whom to appoint from a pool of three candidates. With himself as ad interim secretary and Puno overseeing security matters, the “shooting buddies” were ready to roll.
A few days later, P-Noy appointed former Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo as DILG secretary. However, he made it clear that his “point man” for the “Interior” — security matters – side of DILG would be Puno; thus, limiting Robredo to the “Local Government” side of DILG. It effectively split DILG into two agencies. Although Puno administratively reported to Robredo, P-Noy was just a phone call away. It was an “arrangement” that gave comfort to P-Noy knowing that his “shooting buddy” would take a bullet for him should things go wrong.
Indeed, Puno must really be enjoying his new role keeping an eye on police matters. He was on top of the world. Then, suddenly the world turned upside down… and all hell broke loose!
At 10:00 AM on August 23, 2010, Rolando Mendoza, a dismissed senior inspector in the Manila Police Department, hijacked a tourist bus carrying 25 Chinese tourists from Hong Kong. Eleven hours later, after a botched rescue operation by an “elite” SWAT team, eight tourists were murdered by the hostage-taker and the hostage-taker was fatally shot by police sniper fire.
The incident put P-Noy in an awkward and embarrassing position for being “invisible” during the hostage-taking episode which was televised worldwide. His leadership was questioned and many believed that he failed the first test of his presidency. Also “invisible” were Puno and then PNP chief Jesus Verzosa who, in the midst of the hostage crisis, flew to Cagayan de Oro to attend a “function.” Robredo was around in the periphery but was not involved directly in the negotiation with the hostage-taker.
In the aftermath of the Luneta bloodbath, a “lynch mob” in the administration singled out Robredo for the fiasco and tried to “hang” him. But Robredo defended himself saying that he was “not in the loop,” claiming that it was Puno who was given sole authority and responsibility over police matters.
Consequently, P-Noy ordered Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to conduct a fact-finding investigation and promised that “heads will roll.” De Lima then formed the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC), which included Robredo and three others.
Jueteng payola exposed
Then, in an unrelated incident on September 11, 2010, retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz dropped a “bombshell” right in front of Malacañang Palace alleging that two trusted aides of P-Noy were each receiving P2 million monthly payola from jueteng lords. While he refused to name names saying that he would do it at the right forum, ABS-CBN published the names of the two officials who allegedly were receiving jueteng payola: DILG Undersecretary Rico Puno and just retired PNP Chief Jesus Verzosa. ABS-CBN’s sources claimed that Puno and Verzosa were receiving as much as P5 million a month given in tranches –every 8th, 15th, 22nd, and 29th of the month.
Last September 15, P-Noy told reporters, “I still have confidence in him [Puno] but I will talk to him as soon as I get back to Manila and I’ll ask him about these allegations and see what his responses are.” Puno denied the allegations. However, he indicated that he was willing to resign his post or be reassigned to spare P-Noy from further embarrassment.
P-Noy also said that his officials are now looking into the jueteng scandal and was just waiting for their report. He also revealed that investigators are looking into the alleged involvement of Verzosa and the new PNP chief Raul Bacalzo.
Last September 17, the IIRC completed its work and submitted its recommendations to P-Noy. The report cited 12 persons and three networks. Puno and Verzosa were named in the report. In a press conference prior to his departure for the United States, P-Noy said, “The report is recommendatory in nature. I have forwarded it, and its recommendations, to a legal team composed of the Executive Secretary and the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel to make a thorough review of the IIRC’s recommendations.” He added that he’ll study their findings upon his return and then make his decision.
Last September 21, the Senate started its own fact-finding investigation on the jueteng payola issue. Called to testify, Archbishop Cruz identified Puno and Verzosa as the recipients of “national jueteng payola flow.” Cruz also named the following as suspected jueteng lords in their areas: Pampanga governor Lilia “Baby” Pineda; Paul Dy in Isabela; retired general Eugene Martin; Baguio Mayor Mauricio Domogan; Danny Soriano in Cagayan; a retired general Padilla (involved in Pasay, Parañaque, Muntinlupa and San Pedro); Pangasinan governor Amado Espino; and, a certain Boy Jalandoni in Bacolod. Pineda is married to the reputed “Jueteng King” — Rodolfo “Bong” Pineda — who was investigated by Congress in 1998, 2000, and 2005. However, nothing came out of those investigations.
The hostage crisis and the jueteng payola scandal hit Puno like a double whammy. While he is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, it’s the opposite in the court of public opinion; that is, he is guilty until proven innocent. It all boils down to perception and in politics perception is reality.
The bottom line is: The jueteng payola scandal could be the defining moment of P-Noy’s presidency. For as long as jueteng thrives, his mantra, “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” (No corruption, no poverty), would be hollow and meaningless. Either he eradicates jueteng — as he promised during the campaign — or jueteng would spell doom to his anti-corruption crusade.
At the end of the day, Puno can protect his “shooting buddy” by falling on the sword. That would be a noble act. That is also the price of true friendship.