Who is NFA chief Jason Aquino and why is he controversial?

A source led Rappler to public notices published on March 11, 2016 by the Intelligence Group (IG) of the Bureau of Customs that occupied most of page 18 of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. They warned the public against transacting with Aquino, who was among a few dozen names said to be no longer connected with the office. 

The notice was signed by then Customs deputy commissioner Jessie Dellosa, who succeeded Danilo Lim, who resigned after President Aquino slammed corruption at Customs in a State of the Nation Address.

The name "Maj. Jayson L. Aquino" was among the 44 personalities that Dellosa warned against. It misspelled the NFA Administrator's name but sources confirmed it is the same person. The middle initial is correct – letter L for Laureano. 

The "purge" to rid Customs of people such as Aquino was reported by the Manila Bulletin 8 months before the public notice, in July 2015.

"Dellosa had shown the door to the 16 personnel after they were found colluding with smugglers for allegedly accepting 'tara' or grease money from brokers or consigns of imported shipments," the news report read.

Sources privy to the information confirmed the scheme reported in the newspaper article. Customs insiders assisted smugglers by making sure their cargoes would escape inspection. They got grease money – the so-called "tara" – in exchange for the favor. 

A source said Dellosa discovered Aquino's scheme as soon as he assumed his post. A separate source said an infuriated Dellosa wanted the public notices published – albeit belatedly – because the personalities continued with their modus operandi despite warnings for them to stop.

Dellosa did not respond to Rappler's request for an interview. 

Photo of the public notice published by the Intelligence Group of the Bureau of Customs on March 11, 2016

A revolutionary government

This wasn't the image of the soldier who opposed corruption. He was a member of the elite Scout Rangers unit of the Philippine Army and became the operations chief of the First Scout Ranger Regiment.

"He was straight and decisive," said a military officer who used to serve under Aquino. He told Rappler about how Aquino supported him when he fought the illegal marble quarry operations in San Miguel, Bulacan. 

"We were deputized by PENRO (Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office) Bulacan to stop illegal quarrying. He supported me all throughout when there were political pressures for us to stop our anti-illegal quarrying operations," the officer recalled.

In 2005, two years after the failed 2003 Oakwood mutiny, then Army Major Jason Aquino was caught allegedly distributing a pamphlet proposing a revolutionary government to form a new group of officers that would attempt to succeed where the Magdalo Group of Senator Antonio Trillanes IV failed.

The Army chief who subjected him to solitary confinement back then – Hermogenes Esperon Jr – is now a colleague in Duterte's Cabinet. Esperon is the current National Security Adviser. 

Aquino was in detention when the Marines staged a standoff inside Fort Bonifacio in February 2006 after another failed mutiny against Arroyo.

Aquino, who wanted to return to military service, would spend the next decade fighting to get the mutiny charges against him dropped. 

In 2010, newly elected president Benigno Aquino III granted amnesty to rebels who sought to overthrow his predecessor. Major Aquino rejected it, saying he could not agree to plead guilty to the mutiny he insisted he was not a part of. 

In February 2011, the court cleared him and he returned to the Philippine Army. But Aquino was forced to retire two years later, in October 2013, because he overstayed his rank as major. An officer can hold the rank for a maximum of 10 years only. Losing 6 years in detention meant Aquino could not meet the qualifications to be promoted to the next rank, lieutenant colonel, in time.

Getting Garcillano to confess

Jason Aquino was back in the Army when he was caught in another political controversy in July 2011 as the Aquino administration was seeking to bring his predecessor Arroyo to justice. His name was dragged in moves to get former Comelec commissioner Virgilio Garcillano in the notorious "Hello, Garci" controversy to confess to conspiring with the former president to cheat in the 2004 presidential elections.

The former president's political adviser, Ronald Llamas, claimed that Garcillano sent feelers through Aquino that he was willing to testify against Arroyo. Garcillano denied this, saying he believes Jason Aquino was an emissary of Llamas. 

One of the text messages Aquino supposedly sent Garcillano was this: "The defining moment is now. Else, we will be overtaken by events. The secretary is waiting for your call."

No confession ever happened. Llamas feared Arroyo's men got to Garcillano ahead of them.

Aquino joined the Intelligence Group of the Bureau of Customs after he left the military.

Aquino's fight vs cartels?

Despite the controversies he found himself in, Aquino still commands respect from the men he used to lead. 

A military officer told Rappler he believes Aquino was framed in the Bureau of Customs and trusts that he is fighting the good fight against Evasco. 

"He fought the corrupt system there (Customs). Natali s'ya sa nakararami na sumang-ayon sa tara system (He was compromised by the majority who went with the tara system)," the officer said. 

The officer said he confronted his former commander when allegations of corruption were hurled against him in the past administration. 

"I confronted him. Nagsusumbong sa akin (He complained to me) and enlightened me about kalakaran sa (the schemes in) Customs. I talked to other sources to validate. I don't normally agree to assertions," the officer said. 

He doesn't believe Aquino could receive bribe money. "I don't think so. His name was used by a guy to get the tara."

"May ni-recommend siya na solution to eradicate the tara pero nakabangga niya maraming opisyal kaya nag-resign siya. In the end, siya ang masama. (He recommended a solution to eradicate the tara but he was blocked by many officials so he resigned. In the end, he was the bad guy.) The bad guys won," the officer said.

The officer believes Aquino's experience at Customs will allow him to end the cartels at the NFA.

In February, Aquino wrote Evasco to warn him that extending the permits of foreign importers, albeit temporarily, would open the floodgates to rice smuggling. But Evasco dismissed it.

Valdez, in defending herself from Duterte's allegations of corruption, explained that it is Aquino's proposal that is prone to abuse because a government-to-government contract would give the NFA management full control over how to import rice.

They can choose, for example, to give a particular shipping company the contract to transport the supply in exchange for grease money. It also aids rice smuggling, she said, because the shipping company may agree to move more sacks than the amount stated in the contract.

It turned out, Aquino extended the permits of select countries and select foreign importers. It prompted allegations of favoritism.

"It really caused a stir. How come he's being selective? What is so special about this country or this importer? We have this equal protection clause. These are questions that really caused a stir and pushed the Council to decide to give blanket extention in order to avoid pabor-pabor (favoritism)," said Valdez.

Did Duterte fire the right person? Eyes are on NFA and Aquino to see if Duterte is serious about ridding the government of corruption. – Rappler.com