Customs chief Lapeña vows to release tax credit certificates

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 4) — Tax credit certificates that have been pending at the Bureau of Customs (BOC) for years may finally be released.

That's among the reforms Customs Commissioner Isidro Lapeña wants implemented a month into assuming his post.

"What I intend to do is to be very transparent about it, to award or release, these tax credit certificates during the flag raising ceremony and inform everybody publicly that this is being released and there's no any consideration on my part," Lapeña said Wednesday as the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee investigated the "tara" or payoff system at the BOC.

A tax credit certificate contains refunds the government owes a taxpayer from excess payments and canceled imports. It can be used, instead of cash, to pay future taxes and duties.

"The tax credit certificate shall be used to pay taxes, duties, charges and fees due to the National Government," according to Article 21 of Executive Order 226 or the Omnibus Investments Code of 1987.

Senators praised Lapeña's move, saying it will benefit businessmen who have been complaining of delays in the release of their refunds, which could be worth millions of pesos.

"Ito yung nirereklamo ng Japanese firms di ba? Pag naghe-hearing kami naririnig namin two years, three years, hindi pa raw nakukuha. Sa Japan daw within six months lang kuha nila," Senator Panfilo Lacson said.

[Translation: Isn't this the complaint of Japanse firms? Whenever we conduct hearings, we hear cases where they haven't gotten their refunds for two to three years. They said refunds are released in Japan within six months.[

"Kung marelease niyo po 'yan at the soonest possible time palagay ko po kayo na 'yung pinakamagaling na commissioner ng Customs sa kabuuan ng Pilipinas because that's been a racket ang alam ko racket 'yan ng napakatagal na po," Senator Bam Aquino said.

[Translation: "If you will be able to release that at the soonest possible time I think you will be the most competent Customs commissioner in Philippine history because that has been a racket for years."]

Lapeña said he is now investigating a so-called "pasalubong" system where businessmen offer the new Customs commissioner three to seven percent of their refund in exchange of signing and releasing the tax credit certificate.

"Last week or the other week a concerned officer came to my office and said that is the source, the tax credit certificate is the source of the 'pasalubong,'" Lapeña said.

"The processing of these tax refund happens when a new commissioner is designated," Lapeña added.

Prior to his meeting with the "concerned" BOC personnel, Lapeña said he received bundles of tax credit certificates and signed them. He eventually recalled the documents to use for his probe.

Read more: New Customs chief carries out reforms to stop corruption

Meanwhile, Maria Aiza Sebastian, who served as head of the tax credit committee for two years, said the tax credit certificate could not have been the source of bribe money, mainly because it comes in the form of documents, not cash.

"Unlike BIR (Bureau of Internal Revenue), Customs ho wala pong (has no) mechanism for payment of cash refunds," Sebastian said.

"Nagulat lang po ako na yun yung source ng 'pasalubong.' Comm, sorry po pero hindi ho talaga. Iba ho 'yun (I was surprised to hear that is the course of 'pasalubong.' Sorry, Commissioner, but no. That's different)," she told Lapeña.

Senate Blue Ribbon Committee Chair Richard Gordon agreed the "pasalubong" may have other bigger sources.

He said the tax credit certificate was only the tip of the iceberg, and his committee will continue to conduct probes to get to the bottom of the deep-seated corruption at the bureau.

He also said tax refunds should be immediately returned to taxpayers.

"Pag binagalan mo, graft 'yan e. Parang Customs 'yan, ayaw mong palabasin para lagyan ka (If you slow down the process, that's graft. Just like Customs, you don't release shipments for you to be bribed)," he said.

'Pasalubong,' according to a former Customs policeman

Ruben Taguba, a former Customs policeman and father of Mark Taguba, a fixer central to the Senate investigation into the P6.4-billion shabu shipment that passed through the BOC last May, shared what he knew about the "pasalubong" system.

LOOK: How ₱6.4B-worth of shabu was shipped from China to PH

Unlike the tax certificates, he said businessmen would offer the Customs Commissioner millions of pesos to monopolize the shipment of certain goods.

"Kunwari gusto mong hawakan ang resin, ang gagawin mo, kausapin mo and commissioner sabihin mo, 'Akin lang ang resin, magbibigay ako ng 50, 100' (For example you want to monopolize resin shipments what you do is talk to the Commisioner. Tell him, 'Resin is mine, I will give 50, 100 million')," Taguba said.

"Hindi ka pwedeng hindi commissioner ang kausap mo diyan (You can only talk to a commissioner about that)," he added.

This makes all previous BOC commissioners guilty of pocketing bribes, Taguba said.

Gordon said former Customs Commisioner Nicanor Faeldon should have been present to defend himself. Faeldon resigned amid allegations of corruption and incompetency following the smuggling of P6.4-billion shabu from China. Lapeña replaced him.

Faeldon is detained at the office of the Senate sergeant-at-arms for refusing to attend Senate hearings into shabu shipment. It emerged later on that the shabu's entry was facilitated by corrupt Customs officials and fixers.

Gordon said, "We will continue to put Faeldon in contempt until he speaks up."

Senate is investigating Lacson's claims in an August 23 privilege speech that Customs officials, including the allegation Faeldon has been receiving payoffs to ease the release of shipments.

Lacson on Wednesday said Faeldon received a total of P107 million as "pasalubong" when he assumed as BOC chief in 2016.

Fixer Mark Taguba said he pays up to P27,000 per container as grease money for Customs officials.