MANILA, Philippines – National Food Authority (NFA) Administrator Jason Aquino is the cause of the latest ruckus in the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.
"Sino bang backer n'yan bok, at sobrang lakas ng loob naman (Who is his backer that he dares act so boldly)?" a retired government official who used to work with Aquino at the Bureau of Customs texted a fellow retired military officer.
The message sender had heard about the alleged notoriety of Aquino, also a former soldier, at the bureau.
The two retired officers used an encrypted messaging app to chat about a news report – 'Top execs turning NFA into cash cow' – where Cabinet Secretary Leoncio "Jun" Evasco Jr hinted at the alleged corruption of Aquino.
The news story quoted Evasco as saying: "So who is or should I say 'are' earning whenever the NFA undertakes a government-to-government transaction? The NFA administrator, who merely assumed office last January, has the audacity to go behind our back and even deliberately defy the council's decision."
The two appointees of Duterte, a retired soldier and a former communist rebel, did not get along. They disagreed on strategy to secure the country's rice supply.
Aquino wanted the NFA itself to buy the supply from foreign importers, through a government-to-government transaction. Evasco wanted to temporarily extend the permits of all foreign importers and let them shoulder the cost of rice importation – at least until after the harvest when the NFA is able to buy its supply from local farmers instead.
Supporters of Aquino and Evasco accused each other of corruption.
Aquino vs Evasco
Aquino was belatedly appointed NFA administrator on December 29, 2016. He was only 3 months into his job when Evasco threatened in March to remove him from his post for defying his orders as ex-officio chairman of the NFA Council.
One would think it very unwise to get on the bad side of the man who had served Duterte the longest and to whom he entrusted the supervision of 13 government agencies, including the NFA.
On April 5, Duterte instead fired Evasco's proxy at the NFA Council. The President called Undersecretray Halmen Valdez "corrupt" and dismissed as "loose talk" the corruption allegations against Aquino. (READ: Dismissed Usec Valdez to Duterte: Probe 'NFA syndicate')
Aquino was supposedly among the first people to persuade Duterte to run for president, according to the President himself.
"Jason Aquino, he is a military man. Actually he was the very first to come to Davao 3 years ago to urge me to run. Inilagay ko siya diyan (I put him there). Idineny niya (He will deny it), of course. There was this loose talk about the offer per cavan...," Duterte said on April 10 as he defended his decision to fire Valdez.
If Duterte's timeline is correct, Aquino had just left the military and had joined or was about to join the Bureau of Customs when he went to visit Duterte in Davao to persuade him to run for president.
Who is behind Aquino?
The axe fell on Evasco's proxy two days after the President met with Aquino on April 3 to discuss the issue. Curiously, Duterte has not even met Evasco to listen to his side.
"I just don't like people who are corrupt. Iyong babae, dadaldal (The woman will talk)," Duterte added. He heaped all the blame on Valdez but didn't mention Evasco. (READ: Jun Evasco, the former NPA rebel in the Palace 'snake pit')
Among Malacañang observers, the question is not "who is Jason Aquino?" but "whose shoulder is he standing on?"
This is because Aquino has a record of acting as a political operator. In 2005, he was alleged to have attempted to recruit soldiers to back a mutiny against then president Gloria Arroyo. In 2011, he was said to have worked to get notorious Commission on Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano to confess to the "Hello, Garci" poll fraud controversy to make Arroyo win the 2004 presidential elections.
Both of these political ventures failed.
Who is backing Aquino now? "Si (It's) Bong Go," was the reply in the chat between two retired military officers more senior than Aquino. (READ: Growing rift between Duterte's trusted men – Bong Go and Jun Evasco?)
But there are those who suspect someone more influential may be behind the NFA administrator.
Shady record in Customs
Aquino is a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class of 1991. The class baron, he was influential among his peers.
He was among the soldiers whose bright military careers were disrupted during the tumultous period of the Arroyo presidency when they got involved in plots to overthrow the government. He was forced to retire in 2013 after nearly a decade fighting to stay in the military.
Aquino later joined the Bureau of Customs, where he failed to live up to the reforms idealized by the revolutionary government he once pushed for.
The notice was signed by then Customs deputy commissioner Jessie Dellosa, who succeeded Danilo Lim, who resigned after President Aquino slammed corruption at Customs in a State of the Nation Address.
The name "Maj. Jayson L. Aquino" was among the 44 personalities that Dellosa warned against. It misspelled the NFA Administrator's name but sources confirmed it is the same person. The middle initial is correct – letter L for Laureano.
The "purge" to rid Customs of people such as Aquino was reported by the Manila Bulletin 8 months before the public notice, in July 2015.
"Dellosa had shown the door to the 16 personnel after they were found colluding with smugglers for allegedly accepting 'tara' or grease money from brokers or consigns of imported shipments," the news report read.
Sources privy to the information confirmed the scheme reported in the newspaper article. Customs insiders assisted smugglers by making sure their cargoes would escape inspection. They got grease money – the so-called "tara" – in exchange for the favor.
A source said Dellosa discovered Aquino's scheme as soon as he assumed his post. A separate source said an infuriated Dellosa wanted the public notices published – albeit belatedly – because the personalities continued with their modus operandi despite warnings for them to stop.
Dellosa did not respond to Rappler's request for an interview.
This wasn't the image of the soldier who opposed corruption. He was a member of the elite Scout Rangers unit of the Philippine Army and became the operations chief of the First Scout Ranger Regiment.
"He was straight and decisive," said a military officer who used to serve under Aquino. He told Rappler about how Aquino supported him when he fought the illegal marble quarry operations in San Miguel, Bulacan.
"We were deputized by PENRO (Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office) Bulacan to stop illegal quarrying. He supported me all throughout when there were political pressures for us to stop our anti-illegal quarrying operations," the officer recalled.
In 2005, two years after the failed 2003 Oakwood mutiny, then Army Major Jason Aquino was caught allegedly distributing a pamphlet proposing a revolutionary government to form a new group of officers that would attempt to succeed where the Magdalo Group of Senator Antonio Trillanes IV failed.
The Army chief who subjected him to solitary confinement back then – Hermogenes Esperon Jr – is now a colleague in Duterte's Cabinet. Esperon is the current National Security Adviser.
Aquino was in detention when the Marines staged a standoff inside Fort Bonifacio in February 2006 after another failed mutiny against Arroyo.
Aquino, who wanted to return to military service, would spend the next decade fighting to get the mutiny charges against him dropped.
In 2010, newly elected president Benigno Aquino III granted amnesty to rebels who sought to overthrow his predecessor. Major Aquino rejected it, saying he could not agree to plead guilty to the mutiny he insisted he was not a part of.
In February 2011, the court cleared him and he returned to the Philippine Army. But Aquino was forced to retire two years later, in October 2013, because he overstayed his rank as major. An officer can hold the rank for a maximum of 10 years only. Losing 6 years in detention meant Aquino could not meet the qualifications to be promoted to the next rank, lieutenant colonel, in time.
Getting Garcillano to confess
Jason Aquino was back in the Army when he was caught in another political controversy in July 2011 as the Aquino administration was seeking to bring his predecessor Arroyo to justice. His name was dragged in moves to get former Comelec commissioner Virgilio Garcillano in the notorious "Hello, Garci" controversy to confess to conspiring with the former president to cheat in the 2004 presidential elections.
The former president's political adviser, Ronald Llamas, claimed that Garcillano sent feelers through Aquino that he was willing to testify against Arroyo. Garcillano denied this, saying he believes Jason Aquino was an emissary of Llamas.
One of the text messages Aquino supposedly sent Garcillano was this: "The defining moment is now. Else, we will be overtaken by events. The secretary is waiting for your call."
No confession ever happened. Llamas feared Arroyo's men got to Garcillano ahead of them.
Aquino joined the Intelligence Group of the Bureau of Customs after he left the military.
Aquino's fight vs cartels?
Despite the controversies he found himself in, Aquino still commands respect from the men he used to lead.
A military officer told Rappler he believes Aquino was framed in the Bureau of Customs and trusts that he is fighting the good fight against Evasco.
"He fought the corrupt system there (Customs). Natali s'ya sa nakararami na sumang-ayon sa tara system (He was compromised by the majority who went with the tara system)," the officer said.
The officer said he confronted his former commander when allegations of corruption were hurled against him in the past administration.
"I confronted him. Nagsusumbong sa akin (He complained to me) and enlightened me about kalakaran sa (the schemes in) Customs. I talked to other sources to validate. I don't normally agree to assertions," the officer said.
He doesn't believe Aquino could receive bribe money. "I don't think so. His name was used by a guy to get the tara."
"May ni-recommend siya na solution to eradicate the tara pero nakabangga niya maraming opisyal kaya nag-resign siya. In the end, siya ang masama. (He recommended a solution to eradicate the tara but he was blocked by many officials so he resigned. In the end, he was the bad guy.) The bad guys won," the officer said.
The officer believes Aquino's experience at Customs will allow him to end the cartels at the NFA.
In February, Aquino wrote Evasco to warn him that extending the permits of foreign importers, albeit temporarily, would open the floodgates to rice smuggling. But Evasco dismissed it.
Valdez, in defending herself from Duterte's allegations of corruption, explained that it is Aquino's proposal that is prone to abuse because a government-to-government contract would give the NFA management full control over how to import rice.
They can choose, for example, to give a particular shipping company the contract to transport the supply in exchange for grease money. It also aids rice smuggling, she said, because the shipping company may agree to move more sacks than the amount stated in the contract.
It turned out, Aquino extended the permits of select countries and select foreign importers. It prompted allegations of favoritism.
"It really caused a stir. How come he's being selective? What is so special about this country or this importer? We have this equal protection clause. These are questions that really caused a stir and pushed the Council to decide to give blanket extention in order to avoid pabor-pabor (favoritism)," said Valdez.
Did Duterte fire the right person? Eyes are on NFA and Aquino to see if Duterte is serious about ridding the government of corruption. – Rappler.com