The phenomenon of Rico Puno

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
He’s a testament of the PNoy Principle: friendship trumps merit

Marites D. VitugIf Rico Puno, outgoing Interior and Local Government Undersecretary, were made accountable for his major lapses during the August 2010 hostage crisis—which led to the killing of 8 Chinese tourists—then the attempt to sneak into the late Jesse Robredo’s condominium to gain access to documents would not have happened.

Remember that the effects of this debacle rippled into our tourism arrivals as Hong Kong and mainland Chinese cancelled planned visits to the Philippines.   
If Puno were sensitive to the demands of public office and valued accountability, he would have resigned then.
If President Aquino put the nation’s interest first before personal relations, he would have accepted Puno’s resignation.
If Puno had left DILG, other incidents may not have taken place at all, such as the almost P400-million dubious arms deals which Puno was trying to close, as reported by, which got hold of a 17-page report citing irregularities in the unfulfilled deals. These were suspended after questions on conflict of interest and other bidding anomalies were raised. Apparently, Robredo was trying to get to the bottom of these.
So it came as a shock that while top government officials led by President Aquino were moving heaven and earth to find Robredo’s plane in the waters of Masbate, Puno and his cohorts’ priority was to get hold of Robredo’s files. Within 24 hours after the plane crashed, they set out to Robredo’s office in the National Police Commission and his condominium in Quezon City looking for some papers. They also did the same in the late secretary’s DILG office. They failed.
Puno to another government post?
Now comes Aquino saying he ordered Puno to secure Robredo’s papers. In Vladivostok, when Aquino was told by reporters that Puno went to Robredo’s condo, he said: “Well, he probably thought there were also some documents there that needed to be secured.”
That was an instinctive reply, a defense of a beleaguered friend. Apparently, Aquino later checked himself and told reporters that Puno was on his way out of DILG. But he said he would ask if Puno was interested in another government post.
We know that Puno is a close friend of the President, an original buddy, neither Balay nor Samar, but “Times Street,” as he once described his affiliation, referring to the residence of the President. He and Aquino go a long way back. Puno was also consultant of then Congressman Aquino. They share a passion for guns.
Thus, Aquino has been forgiving of Puno’s inadequacies.
‘Lack of capacity’
The justice department-led panel that reviewed the hostage crisis found that Puno usurped the functions of the DILG secretary thus compromising the readiness of the national crisis management committee. Here’s what the report says:
      “…the improper assumption by Usec Puno of the functions of the Secretary
        of the DILG as the chairman of the National Crisis Committee, in the light
        of his admitted lack of training and experience, may have compromised the
        readiness of the national CMC to take over the responsibility when it became
        apparent that  the local CMC could not properly handle the hostage situation.
        That readiness could have been the immediate answer to the worsening
        situation. Puno’s failure to call upon the other members of the national CMC to
        be on standby reflects this lack of capacity.”
Puno felt empowered to exercise the function of the DILG secretary because, he told the review panel, he had “verbal instructions from the President to oversee the PNP.”
Aquino had confirmed that he told Robredo to focus on LGUs, on the “things that affect the local governments, primarily.” He added, “I designated Undersecretary Puno to be more directly in charge [of the police].”
(Aquino said he returned supervision of the police to Robredo in 2011.)
Weeks after the review panel’s report was released in September 2010, the President came to Puno’s defense. “Almost all the things that I tasked him to do, amongst them, what’s happening there, look for a liaison that can brief me constantly as to what is developing, that was done.”
In another interview, he said: “We’ve been together for a very long time,” he said. “There is really a campaign to disparage his reputation. For instance, up to now nobody said he’s also an agriculturist.”
He continued: “He has a lot of skills but he’s being portrayed as just a fixture in a shooting range. He’s a UP Los Baños graduate.”
Weak point
As a leader, one of Aquino’s weak points is his inability to detach himself from personal ties even when it affects the public good. He finds it difficult to subsume his loyalty to friends to the common good. They have stuck with him through thick and thin and he values them tremendously.
But leadership demands much more: a clear vision of what the country needs—rule of law, level economic playing field, honest and good governance—in order to grow. If buddies get in the way, then they have no place in PNoy’s daang matuwid. –

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.