MANILA, Philippines – Surrounded by teary-eyed employees, his family, and top officials of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), former interior secretary Ismael Sueno described himself as a "willing victim" in President Rodrigo Duterte's fight against corruption.
Sueno, for the most part, kept a stoic face during a send-off mass and program at the National Police Commission (Napolcom) on Thursday, April 6. Employees from the DILG and its attached agencies took turns in delivering messages for the former Koronadal mayor, who held the DILG portfolio for just 9 months.
He was unceremoniously sacked at the end of a Cabinet meeting Monday evening, April 3, after Duterte confronted him about corruption allegations in front of the entire Cabinet.
Recalling that fateful Monday meeting, Sueno told a crowd of DILG employees and media, "I tried to explain to the President but he wouldn't listen." (READ: Sueno: Thank you, Mr President, but 'I am not corrupt')
In a statement Tuesday morning, April 4, Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella announced Sueno's firing from the post, citing "loss of trust and confidence."
Still, Sueno, who was among those who helped Duterte during the 2016 presidential campaign, said he continues to believe in Duterte even as he admitted that he was "deeply hurt" by the baseless allegations against him.
"I'm a willing victim," said the former Cabinet official, as he emphasized Duterte's determination to stamp out corruption in government.
Duterte on Monday grilled Sueno over his role in the implementation of a deal to acquire Rosenbauer firetrucks from Austria, a contract signed during the previous administration.
Sueno, with the full authority of the Department of Finance and the Executive Secretary, flew to Austria himself as part of Phase 2 of the contract. Official documents regarding his trip to Austria were distributed to media by Sueno's staff shortly after the program at the Napolcom building.
Rappler sources who were at the Cabinet meeting said Duterte asked Sueno if he really traveled to Austria, despite supposed legal issues surrounding the deal.
Duterte himself would later say that Sueno's "wrong" answer to one of his questions sealed the deal. The President asked Sueno about the DILG legal division's opinion on the contract.
"When he said he was not informed of the legal opinion of his own office, I lost my [head]," recalled Duterte in an April 4 speech.
But Sueno insists the legal opinion – of the first batch of firetruck deliveries – did not reach his office.
Sueno is the first Cabinet secretary to be sacked by Duterte, who is apparently making good on his promise to sack his appointees – long-time friends included – at the mere "whiff" of corruption, even without a formal investigation.
Duterte earlier fired his campaign spokesman, Peter Laviña, as chief of the National Irrigation Administration, also over corruption allegations.
But Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, one of the staunchest critics of the President, questioned why Duterte did not fire Tourism Promotions Board chief operations officer Cesar Montano, who faces a complaint for alleged mismanagement and possible corruption. Duterte had said that he "trusts" Montano, when asked about the complaint.
Trillanes claimed Duterte merely used corruption as an excuse to fire Sueno so he could appoint a new DILG chief after the one-year appointment ban on losing candidates lapses in May. – Rappler.com