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18 immigration officers relieved over bribery scheme for Chinese nationals

IMMIGRATION officers allegedly involved in a bribery scheme that allows easier entry for Chinese nationals at the country’s main airport have been relieved of duty, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo announced Thursday.

The order, which comes from President Rodrigo R. Duterte, covers “all officials and employees of the Bureau of Immigration (BI) who are involved” and they could face charges if there is evidence found during the investigation.

Mr. Panelo also said that despite Mr. Duterte’s trust on Immigration Commissioner Jaime H. Morente, the latter’s performance will be up for discussion with the Cabinet.

“The present situation in the Bureau of Immigration, as well as how it is being run by Commissioner Jaime Morente, will be taken up in the next Cabinet meeting,” he said.

Mr. Morente has already launched a probe on the modus, dubbed as the pastillas scheme since the money paid by Chinese nationals are rolled and wrapped in paper, making it look like the native sweet delicacy.

The scheme, which has allegedly been taking place at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), was first reported earlier this week by Senator Risa N. Hontiveros-Baraquel, who presented a witness in Thursday’s Senate probe.

Immigration Officer 1 Allison A. Chiong, in his testimony at the hearing, said that as a “frontline immigration officer,” he has personally witnessed the illegal transactions between immigration employees and Chinese nationals.

He said the scheme started after the Department of Justice removed their overtime pay.

“To cope with the substantial deduction of their salaries, some immigration officers decided to offer ‘VIP services’ for immigrants who are casino high-rollers,” he said in his opening statement.

He narrated that in the initial method, names of Chinese nationals were sent through Viber, but that has since been deleted to avoid detection after they were scrutinized by the National Bureau of Immigration.

Frontline immigration officers were then told to bring Chinese nationals to the holding area of the Travel Control and Enforcement Unit so that their names can be checked against a list of payers.

Mr. Chiong, who admitted to having been part of the scheme, said there are also syndicates in the bureau competing with each other and working with travel agencies in China.

He said each officer receives around P20,000 weekly if assigned at the NAIA Terminal 1, and P8,000 weekly at the Terminal 3.

Ms. Hontiveros-Baraquel said Senate President Vicente Sotto III extended to the witness immunity from suit and application for the witness protection program.

Mr. Chiong also revealed that there are “VVIPs” or those who are blacklisted or have records but were allowed to enter the country through “special arrangement” at a fee ranging from P50,000 to P200,000.

BI Spokesperson Dana Krizia M. Sandoval, in a statement sent to reporters, said, “In compliance with the directive of the President, we are immediately relieving the services of 18 immigration personnel mentioned during today’s Senate hearing regarding the Pastillas scheme.”

She added, “The expose by Immigration Officer Alex Chiong is deeply alarming, and we will ensure that we will take every measure to destroy this system of corruption, and impose the harshest penalties to erring personnel.” — Gillian M. Cortez and Vann Marlo M. Villegas

Duterte assures Espenido of security amid drug link probe

PRESIDENT RODRIGO R. Duterte will not allow any harm to come to his drug war poster boy, Lieutenant Colonel Jovie Espenido, the Palace spokesperson said on Thursday.

“We cannot stop him (Mr. Espenido) from entertaining such apprehension but the President will not allow anyone to be hurt or to be harmed outside of what is allowed by law — outside of legal processes or methods sanction by law,” Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo said in a briefing.

Mr. Espenido, who was relieved of his duties from the Bacolod City Police earlier this month due to his alleged involvement in the illegal drug trade, said on Wednesday that he is fearing for his life and thinks there are government officials who are out to get him for being on the frontline of the administration’s campaign against illegal drugs.

The Philippine National Police is currently conducting a probe on officers suspected of drug links and are included in the President’s watchlist. Mr. Panelo said Mr. Espenido can request for protective measures from the government. — Gillian M. Cortez

Topacio brings election case against Pimentel before the Supreme Court

LAWYER FERDINAND S. Topacio has asked the Supreme Court to declare Senator Aquilino L. Pimentel II as ineligible to hold office for having exceeded the prescribed maximum number of terms in the Constitution.

In a 17-page petition, Mr. Topacio said the Commission on Elections (Comelec) “erred and acted with grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction” when it dismissed the case he filed against Mr. Pimentel in the 2019 elections.

The Comelec on February 13, 2019 denied the petition of Mr. Topacio to cancel the certificate of candidacy of Mr. Pimentel. The election body, sitting en banc, denied his motion for reconsideration on December 13, 2019. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas

DepEd lifts suspension on national, regional events, field trips

THE DEPARTMENT of Education (DepEd) has lifted the suspension of all national and regional activities as well as field trips and other off-campus activities starting February 24.

In a memorandum issued late Wednesday, DepEd said all its units “may already resume the conduct of national, regional, and/or off-campus activities… provided all precautionary measures identified by DepEd and DoH (Department of Health) are strictly followed.

A suspension on school-related activities involving big gatherings was imposed by DepEd last Feb. 4 to minimize the risk of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) spread.

The latest order, however, maintains limitations on official foreign trips “subject to the latest updates and advisories on travel restrictions by concerned authorities,” reads the memo signed by Education Secretary Leonor M. Briones on Feb. 19.

Education workers and students who will go on personal trips to countries with confirmed COVID-19 cases are required to “self-quarantine for 14 days from the date of arrival in the Philippines.”

The self-quarantine period for DepEd personnel will be charged to their leave credits while students should be provided with “alternative delivery modes of education.”

DepEd also said that schools should continue to strictly implement COVID-19 preventive measures identified in earlier memos.