New Philippines Customs Chief Cracks Down on Corruption

To fix the Bureau of Customs, President Benigno S. Aquino III needed a numbers guy, someone who could make sense of the thousands of shipments and billions of pesos passing daily through the Philippines’ ports. He turned to John P. Sevilla. Three months after taking over as commissioner in December, Mr. Sevilla told The Wall Street Journal he had been “shocked” by the Bureau’s failure to analyze the rich data it received, information that held vital clues to its endemic corruption problems.

“I’m amazed that nobody bothered to put the data together until about a month ago,” Mr. Sevilla said. “But we found out that we open up less than 1% of [shipping] containers, but of the containers that we open, 90% have problems.”

He was also incredulous that Customs lacked a single reference source to help examiners make complex calculations about duties and fees incurred by traders. One is now being compiled, Mr. Sevilla said, “to make it easier for people to do their jobs…so that they have no excuse” for undercharging importers, a common practice rewarded with illegal payments.

Customs is tasked with collecting revenue at the nation’s 17 major and 43 minor ports. But it has a history of missing targets: It pulled in 304.5 billion pesos ($6.8 billion) in 2013 — over a fifth of all government revenue, but still 35 billion shy of its goal. The under-invoicing of traded goods has cost the country $23 billion in lost tax revenue since 1990, according to a February report by Global Financial Integrity, a U.S. research firm. The Aquino administration’s keynote policy of improving governance thus made Customs a prime target for reform. A far-reaching overhaul was ordered last October, and Mr. Sevilla, a former finance undersecretary, was parachuted in soon after.

Before entering government in 2006, Mr. Sevilla held directorships at investment bank Goldman Sachs and ratings agency Standard & Poor’s, having earned degrees at Cornell and Princeton. His boss, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, hailed him as the right person to untangle the mess, “someone who is results-oriented.”

Not everyone was convinced: In January, Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile said Mr. Sevilla was “in the dark” about how turn Customs around. Undeterred, the studious-looking commissioner has spent the last three months poring over reams of customs data in which the dealings of smugglers and corrupt officials have long lain hidden.

All import-export transactions were now being published online for public scrutiny, Mr. Sevilla said, “I think we’ve turned from being the most secretive government agency to being by far the most transparent.”

At the Port of Manila, one of three ports in the capital, importers and brokers crowded around glass service windows, an innovation from before Mr. Sevilla’s time designed to block access to officials and make them harder to bribe. Inside, on computers surrounded by mountains of paperwork in what remains a semi-automated operation, customs examiners placed their electronic signature on each shipment after calculating the requisite duties and fees.

The electronic signature system also predates Mr. Sevilla. The difference now, he said, is that he is actively policing it, cross-referencing signatures against undervalued shipments, and punishing the officials responsible. He said the threat of being caught was critical when front-line staff are offered bribes equivalent to their monthly salaries “a couple of times a day.”

Likewise, the credible threat that your container might be physically inspected is the best deterrent against false import declaration, Mr. Sevilla argued. But with 18,000 containers piled up at Manila International Container Port alone, the challenge is to open the right ones.

The Bureau has 3,600 staff, but aims to hire nearly 3,000 more, partly to increase the inspection rate. Around a fifth of shipments are flagged for further examination. Some of these are X-rayed and, if necessary, physically inspected.

Mr. Sevilla said he is seeking an extra 250 million pesos for more inspections after figuring out that Customs collects an average of 125,000 pesos per opened container, against a cost of 10,000 pesos for conducting the inspection — making the process “a no-brainer.”

The Bureau also regularly auctions off seized items to further boost revenues. At one such auction in mid-February, buyers snapped up everything from a smuggled Harley Davidson to batches of animal feed. Other illegal shipments are sent straight back to their point of origin, such as the 50 containers of rotting garbage — declared as “recyclable plastic” -from Canada last month.

The new regime is already producing results, Mr. Sevilla said, citing a 19.3% year-over-year increase in collections to 81.3 billion pesos in November to January. Further improvements will be needed: Customs has been tasked with collecting 408.1 billion pesos this year, far more than it has ever managed before. The true test of the Bureau’s progress under Mr. Sevilla will lie, fittingly, in the numbers. Source: The Wall Street Journal


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