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Department of Transportation (DOTr) Secretary Jaime Bautista is under fire. You don’t need to be an experienced sleuth to see that all the copy-pasted attacks from different media platforms are meant to break his will which – those pulling the strings hope – would make him quit his job.
His post covers a lot of territories that have become a source of big money for the corrupt: from management of the country’s airports to procurement of car and motorcycle plates to port operations, among others.
“Are you up for the fight?” I asked him in one of our one-on-one conversations.
“I’m here to initiate changes,” Bautista replied. “If the President feels that I’m not up for the job, I’d gladly give it up. But to say that I’d be intimidated by those financing these baseless attacks, they’re greatly mistaken.”
He knows that, in changing the status quo, he’d be met with violent opposition. For instance, periodic system failures in the country’s airports are used by his detractors to bring him down every step of the way. Never mind if he’s just starting to see what can be done to improve the decrepit airports (notably, NAIA 1, 2 and 3) that he inherited from past DOTr administrations.
Bautista has a long list of achievements in the private sector. He could have easily enjoyed his retirement, but the call of duty, he told me, “is hard to ignore.” He previously served as president and chief operating officer of Philippine Airlines (PAL) from 2004 to 2012, and again from 2014 to 2019. He is an independent director of Premium Leisure Corporation and Nickel Asia Corporation; former executive and director in MacroAsia Corporation, Macroasia Airport Services Corporation, Macroasia Properties Development Corporation, and ETON Properties Philippines, Incorporated. He was also a former Treasurer of Tan Yan Kee Foundation, Incorporated and served in various executive capacities in the Lucio Tan group for 39 years.
Taking in the challenge of rehabbing the country’s airports means he has to have people whom he can trust and lean on. He plucked from retirement one of his PAL colleagues, Cesar Chiong, to handle the difficult task of initiating reforms in the country’s convolutedly-run airports.
In the short time that Chiong oversaw the day-to-day airport operations, he was able to deliver. Records show that from a cash balance of around P5 billion as of July 31, 2022, the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) now has a cash balance of P12.3 billion or an increase of 146%. From accumulated losses of P3.331 billion for calendar years 2020 and 2021, MIAA also recorded a net income after tax of P1.7 billion as of end-December 2022.
According to Bautista, the on-time performance of flight departures has also vastly improved.
The Office of the Ombudsman, however, suspended Chiong without pay for up to six months based on an anonymous complaint accusing him of grave abuse of authority and misconduct for reassigning about 285 MIAA employees without providing a reason for the reassignment.
On May 8, Chiong through his counsels Rondain & Mendiola, filed before the Ombudsman an urgent motion to lift his preventive suspension. From my reading of the entire motion it was clear to me that there was presumption of regularity when Chiong did what he was accused of.
Salient points of the motion: When he assumed his functions and duties around first week of August 2022, Chiong was granted by the MIAA Board of Directors the authority to reassign MIAA personnel “as the exigencies and interest of the service require.”
About 201 or 70% were regular reassignments of airport police personnel to widen their exposure to various security challenges and issues in an airport setting. This move is part of their career development program and in line with security requirements in the airport terminals being operated by MIAA.
Moreover, these reassignments were done upon the recommendation of the Airport Police Department chief and the assistant general manager for Security and Emergency Services.
Starting July 2018, all reassignments of airport police officers have to be done through an office order to be signed by the MIAA general manager to comply with Civil Service Rules on Re-assignments. Previously, the reassignment of an airport police officer was covered by a department order signed only by the chief of Airport Police.
With the approval of the general manager now a requirement, it is not surprising that Chiong’s name would figure prominently in an increasing number of official documents for these reassignments.
About 84 or 29.5% of the reassigned personnel were non-airport police employees who were temporarily assigned as officers-in-charge in view of the leave of absence of an incumbent, or those who required a designation change. The changes in designation were necessitated by ongoing organizational review and modification within the airport terminals managed by MIAA.
These 84 reassignments occurred over an eight-month period, from August 2022 to March 2023. Compare this number to the 103 non-airport police employees reassigned by then-general manager Eddie V. Monreal also over eight months, from August 2016 to March 2017.
The appointments of all 285 reassigned employees were not station-specific,. This means that they may be reassigned to another station within MIAA in the exigency of public service or wherever their service is urgently needed and where any delay in its execution and delivery will adversely affect the efficient delivery of customer service. The reassigned employees suffered neither a demotion in rank or status nor a reduction in salary.
According to Yangson vs Department of Education (G.R. No. 200170, June 3, 2019) a reassignment is presumed to be regular and made in the interest or exigency of public service unless proven otherwise or if it constitutes constructive dismissal (Sec. 13 , 2017 Omnibus Rules on Appointment and Other Human Resource Actions, Civil Service Commission, Revised 2018). Records show that, in the cases of the reassigned MIAA employees, none file any formal complaint about their reassignment. There was no demotion or salary decrease involved. This therefore establishes that the staff reassignments were all regular and made in the interest of providing better public service.
Since Chiong assumed office, his management initiatives have resulted in vastly improved MIAA operations that passed the United States Transport Security Administration Assessment Audit in 2022 and 2023. In fact, during the 10-day Holy Week this year, which is the peak travel season in the country, the MIAA airport experienced up to 90% on-time reliability, without the MIAA terminals getting congested despite the high volume of passengers.
Chiong’s lawyers argue: “Respondents respectfully contend, therefore, that the re-assignment of 285 employees in a period of less than one (1) year is not proof that respondents’ guilt of the charges made against them by the anonymous MIAA Officials is strong. On the contrary, the documents covering the re-assignment of 285 employees will show that respondents are not guilty of Grave Abuse of authority, Grave Misconduct or Conduct Prejudicial to the Best Interest of the Service.”
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Val A. Villanueva is a veteran business journalist. He was a former business editor of the Philippine Star and the Gokongwei-owned Manila Times. For comments, suggestions email him at email@example.com.