Aquino alliance rocked by factions, interests (Second of three parts)

(Series by VERA Files; first published in The Manila Times)

President Aquino also said he told Robredo: “I will retain direct supervision on the PNP [Philippine National Police].” In his testimony before the Incident Investigation Review Committee that is probing the hostage-taking incident, Department of Interior and Local Government Undersecretary for Peace and Order Rico Puno said that he had “verbal instructions from the President to oversee the PNP” in addition to his duties to supervise Patrol 117, Bureau of Fire Protection, Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, Public Safety College and the Philippine Center for Transnational Crime.

In his platform of government, President Aquino had pledged to transform government service “from presidential appointees chosen mainly out of political accommodation to discerning selection based on integrity, competence and performance in serving the public good: a civil service based on merit and not political patronage.”

Mr. Aquino’s supporters, however, are also among the first to admit that a number of more qualified, competent and experienced individuals recommended by the search committee for Cabinet positions were edged out because the President based his selection not only on trust and his “comfort level” but also on “utang na loob [debt of gratitude].”

Clashes among the President’s advisers have also surrounded the appointments. The two main competing groups are carryovers from the campaign. One is composed of Liberal Party stalwarts and the Hyatt 10, or cabinet members of former president and now Rep. Gloria Arroyo of Pampanga who quit her government after the “Hello, Garci” exposé. The group supported Manuel “Mar” Roxas 2nd for vice president. They are also referred to as the “Balay” (which means ”house” in the Visayan dialect) group because their meeting place was the Araneta-Roxas compound in Cubao, Quezon City.

The other group is made up mainly of relatives of President Aquino like his uncle, former Rep. Jose Cojuangco of Tarlac, cousin and TV director Maria Montelibano and friends who supported Jejomar Binay’s bid for vice president. They are referred to as the “Samar” group because their headquarters was a house on Samar Avenue in Quezon City owned by real estate businessman Jose “Jerry” Acuzar, brother in law of Executive Secretary Paquito “Jojo” Ochoa.

Rough sailing Robredo

Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero, who was part of the Aquino campaign and endorsed Binay for vice president, had said Robredo would have a difficult time before the Commission of Appointments.

There is also the clash between the “pragmatists” and “purists” among President Aquino’s close advisers.
The purists are those who think Aquino should make a clean break from his predecessor Arroyo and that he should rid his Cabinet of those identified with her government. The pragmatists are those willing to work with former officials of Mrs. Arroyo.

The ad hoc search committee was composed of Ochoa, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim, Presidential Management Staff Chief Julia Abad, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Internal Revenue Commissioner and Aquino classmate Kim Henares.

Accounts on the role of sisters Ma. Elena “Ballsy” Aquino-Cruz and Aurora Corazon “Pinky” Aquino-Abellada in the search committee vary. While some said they were members of the committee, Ochoa said in an interview that the President’s two elder sisters merely gave suggestions but were not members of the committee.

The post of Foreign Affairs secretary was at first committed to former Trade Secretary Juan Santos, a member of the “Hyatt 10.”

Repaying Romulo

President Aquino, however, was forced to retract the offer to Santos after his sisters prevailed on him to retain Alberto Romulo mainly because of their families’ friendship, despite allegations of incompetence by the career foreign service corps on Romulo.

Romulo was the first among Mrs. Arroyo’s government officials to have openly said he would support and campaign for then Senator Aquino even though he held on to his post all throughout Mrs. Arroyo’s incumbency. “But we owe Tito Bert [Romulo] a lot,” a source present in the meeting quoted one of the sisters when President Aquino informed the search committee of his decision on Santos, who was recently appointed chairman of the Social Security System.

A Malacañang source said President Aquino is keeping Romulo only in a “holdover” capacity for not more than one year.

President Aquino’s lack of rapport with Romulo has resulted in a disconnect between Malacañang and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) with adverse consequences. These include the cancellation of Mr. Aquino’s visits to Vietnam and Indonesia, scheduled for the second week of September, which the Philippines had initiated.

The disconnect also resulted in President Aquino’s failure to receive the call of Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang at the height of the hostage crisis.

A Malacañang official said an aide of Mr. Aquino received Tsang’s call at about 5 p.m. of August 23 through the Palace trunkline. Tsang called without prior notice, and since President Aquino’s aide did not know who Tsang was, a source said the aide referred the call to the DFA.

A Foreign Affairs department official said that they waited for Tsang’s call but it never came. No one from the DFA took the initiative of calling Tsang because Malacañang’s instructions were “to wait” for Tsang’s call.

(Read the first part here.)

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