NEW YORK—President Benigno Aquino III isn’t about to accept the resignation of his good friend, Interior Undersecretary Rico E. Puno, who is accused of receiving up to P8 million a month from illegal gambling operators since July.
He is also one of those named to be culpable for the bungled hostage rescue that left eight Hong Kong tourists dead.
Between meetings to lure fresh investments into the country, the President defended Puno who, he said, was already with him even when he was part of the opposition during the Arroyo administration.
“There is a process. If I can give the process to our foes, our friends and allies are also entitled to that process—that you can’t have them hanged just because someone asked that you do so,” Mr. Aquino said when asked if he would accept Puno’s resignation.
Puno said on Wednesday in Manila that he would submit a courtesy resignation to spare the President any more embarrassment.
He said he could submit his letter of resignation after Mr. Aquino returned from his trip to the United States.
Puno said he first offered to resign when the Aquino administration drew criticisms for the botched Manila police hostage rescue on Aug. 23.
The interior undersecretary said he told the President that “if I’m a burden to your administration, I am ready to leave.”
Puno denied receiving jueteng payola.
A list that retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz, head of the People’s Crusade Against Jueteng, submitted to the Senate on Tuesday showed that Puno and recently retired Philippine National Police chief Jesus Verzosa received between P5 million and P8 million a month from jueteng operators.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said in a privilege speech the next day that the interior secretary and the PNP chief were each receiving P150 million in payoffs, representing 1 percent of the P30 billion in annual gross receipts of jueteng operators.
In New York, however, the President indicated that it was unfair for someone to lose his job over allegations that still lacked sufficient evidence.
Loyalists deserve support
“One thing we have to watch out for is if these people who have been with us when we were still in the harassed opposition and who joined us in our struggles… if all these people who are close to [us] are removed and replaced by those who are not as close, the next group could already be our enemies,” Mr. Aquino said.
The President said those loyal to him deserved his support.
“If I expect loyalty from them, I also have loyalty to them that I will give them due process, so that we will not be swayed by allegations and suspicions that are without basis,” he added.
The President said he had already ordered an investigation of the allegations that Puno and Verzosa received millions of pesos in exchange for protecting jueteng operators.
Asked what sort of evidence would convince him of his friend’s culpability, Mr. Aquino said, “I don’t have to be convinced.”
“They gave us a lead. Thank you. It’s up to the agencies to go over the lead. But if I would tell you everything that will be looked into, it’s like I already told those involved to hide this and hide that because these are what we are looking for,” the President said.
“So let us leave it up to them how it can be substantiated that people are culpable or not culpable,” he added.
The President said he had no way of confirming whether his second cousin, Antonio “Tonyboy” Cojuangco, had asked Cruz to downplay his allegations that key officials of the Aquino administration were receiving jueteng payola.
Mr. Aquino said the prelate didn’t want to talk to him even after he had asked him for a dialog. The President said he neither had a chance to talk to Cojuangco about the matter.
Cojuangco is the top contributor to Mr. Aquino’s successful presidential campaign earlier this year, giving P100 million, a fourth of the total contributions that Aquino declared.
Cruz said Cojuangco approached him to ask that he go easy on the Aquino administration in connection with his exposé on the multimillion-peso payoffs to government officials in exchange for tolerating and protecting the operations of the illegal numbers racket.
The President was already in the United States when the allegations against his cousin cropped up.
“What’s clear is that we don’t have any involvement in jueteng,” the President told reporters between his meetings here with business leaders to attract investments to the country.
Cruz doesn’t like him much, Mr. Aquino said.
“Archbishop Cruz is a very opinionated person. I think I came out publicly asking him to dialog if he wanted to and I think he answered ‘he didn’t want to,’” the President said.
Mr. Aquino suggested that reporters google Cruz’s pronouncements about him from the campaign period. “You will see that Archbishop Cruz who is entitled to his opinion is that he does not think highly of me. So, that’s OK with me,” he said.
In Manila, Malacañang ruled out any change in its plan to stamp out jueteng in the country, as it gave assurance that Santiago’s equation on how the illegal numbers racket was thriving in the country would not prosper under the Aquino administration.
Reminding that Mr. Aquino had ordered Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo to make a comprehensive plan on how to eradicate jueteng, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said the administration was determined to do the job.
“Now if the legislature believes that there should be a shift in policy toward jueteng then it’s up to them to propose laws legalizing jueteng. But insofar as the executive is concerned, our duty is clear. Jueteng is illegal and therefore our duty is to eradicate jueteng,” Lacierda told reporters.
Lacierda was reacting to Santiago’s call for the administration to either legalize jueteng or make sure it licks the problem.
Vice President Jejomar Binay said he was open to having discussions on whether or not jueteng should be legalized.
Speaking to reporters after presiding over oath-taking rites in Malacañang, Binay said it was “probably high time to review the position of the government in light of what has transpired.”
Norman Bordadora, Phil. Daily Inquirer