INSIDE STORY: How Duterte fired DILG chief Sueno

DISMISSED. Former DILG Secretary Ismael Sueno listens during the 14th Cabinet meeting, the meeting during which he is fired by President Duterte. RTVM screenshot

DISMISSED. Former DILG Secretary Ismael Sueno listens during the 14th Cabinet meeting, the meeting during which he is fired by President Duterte.

RTVM screenshot

On Monday night, April 3, President Rodrigo Duterte again made good on a promise that he would fire high-ranking officials after even just a “first whiff” of corruption.

That night, during the 14th Cabinet meeting, the official was Interior Secretary Ismael “Mike” Sueno.

Duterte cut to the chase. Some Cabinet officials were not even seated yet when he began listing down allegations brought to his attention by 3 undersecretaries of the Department of the Interior and Local Government. 

According to a Palace source, the accusation that stood out the most for the President was Sueno’s facilitation of the implementation of a contract for Rossenbauer firetrucks from Austria that cost around P20 million each when similar trucks could be purchased for half the price.

Sueno supposedly traveled to Austria with his family to personally ensure the delivery of 76 firetrucks, even if the government contract is the subject of a case pending with the Supreme Court.

After listing down the accusations, Duterte subjected Sueno to questioning.

The President asked if he indeed traveled to Austria, if he knew about the issues hounding the government contract.

“It is not true,” Sueno said in response to one of the allegations. 

According to an official present at the meeting, Duterte offered Sueno a chance to explain further during a private one-on-one meeting.

Duterte, known for his abrupt transitions, then set the matter aside and brought up matters on the meeting agenda. 

After several hours, during which he even stepped out of the meeting to tour doctors from Davao around, he gave his usual closing remarks. Many in the room were caught off guard when he thanked Sueno for his services as DILG chief. 

Sueno asked if he could still take up Duterte’s offer for a private meeting. The President said the offer was no longer standing.

Taken aback, Sueno rushed out of the room after the President adjourned the meeting.

He also reportedly tailed Duterte after the meeting for one last chance to explain.

Sueno was the DILG's 16th head and was confirmed by the Commission on Appointments only last December 13, 2016.

Investigation

Duterte apparently relied on more than just the claims of the 3 DILG undersecretaries as basis for his decision to fire Sueno.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said the President ordered the conduct of an “investigation” into Sueno’s activities by the Office of Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo.

But Panelo denied this, saying that Duterte relied on “his lawyers in Malacañang”.

Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said in a press conference on Tuesday, April 4, that Duterte specifically asked for a probe into Sueno’s “history of activities.”

But in previous public speeches, Duterte has said he would be ready to fire an appointee if he heard even false allegations of corruption.

“Those caught in allegations of corruption, I told them, the first whiff of corruption, it need not be true, I’m sorry you have to go,” said Duterte on Thursday, March 30, during a Go Negosyo event at the Palace.

It’s not clear if the Duterte administration will file charges against Sueno for corruption. For now, it seems that, for the President, his dismissal is punishment enough.

“Let us wait for the President to make his subsequent actions,” said Abella.

No corruption charges have been filed against the last official Duterte fired – former National Irrigation Administration chief Peter Laviña. His dismissal was also catalyzed by reports of corruption from lower ranking officials in the agency. They claimed Laviña wanted kickbacks from NIA projects in Mindanao.

Sueno’s dismissal and Duterte’s manner of announcing it during a Cabinet meeting appears to be intended to send a strong message to Cabinet officials and the public.

Earlier two other officials appointed by Duterte – Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo and Tourism Promotions Board chief operating officer Cesar Montano had been linked to controversies and allegations of corruption. They remain in their posts.

Abella, asked what made Montano's case different from Sueno's, said Sueno's high rank makes him more of a priority for the President.

"This particular situation deals with a Cabinet member. So it’s something that, for him, is of deep import. So it’s not a question of inequality. It’s just that this is something that he has given due diligence to," said Duterte's spokesman.

One Cabinet official said he isn’t worried Duterte’s policy of acting on “whiffs” of corruption could be abused. He trusts the President will rely on only sound intel before sending an appointee out the door. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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