Lina firm under probe over unpaid taxes, duties

MANILA: U-Freight Philippines Inc., one of the companies of businessman Alberto Lina, is being investigated by the Bureau of Customs (BOC), the agency he now heads, for its alleged failure to pay about P1.5 billion in taxes and duties for an undisclosed number of shipments at its Pasay City warehouse.

This was disclosed to the Inquirer on Monday by BOC insiders, who said the joint probe by the Customs office at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) and the Intelligence Group started about two months before Lina’s appointment as Customs commissioner.

Lina replaced John Phillip Sevilla who resigned last week, citing “political pressure,” among other reasons.

On Monday, Lina denied a report that any of his firms had been investigated for alleged nonpayment of correct duties and taxes, saying that the negative reports coming out to besmirch his and his companies’ reputation formed part of a “concerted effort” to discredit the Aquino administration.

“There’s no truth to that,” Lina said in a telephone interview, when sought to comment on reports that U-Freight Philippines, was being investigated by the BOC. “People can twist facts.”

Lina said he had been warned that such reports would come out one after another in a “concerted effort” to destroy his reputation.

“It may be because of politics, or the smugglers are out to bring me down; they don’t want me to do my job here at Customs,” said Lina.

The inquiry was based on a 2014 memo issued by Sevilla directing all Customs collection districts nationwide to conduct an “inventory of all overstaying cargoes” within their respective jurisdictions.

Unpaid taxes, duties

The order, a copy of which was obtained by the Inquirer, was “pursuant to the bureau’s revenue generation efforts and to free up space in various ports, as well as to accommodate new shipments coming into the country,” Sevilla said.

Initial BOC investigation found that the shipments, which arrived in the country between 2011 and 2013 and subsequently stored at the U-Freight Cargo Haus facility, located near Naia Terminal 2, “could not be accounted for and remained unliquidated.”

“The cargoes were apparently released without the payment of Customs taxes and duties, as required by the Tariff and Customs Code of the Philippines (TCCP),” said an official of the Department of Finance-attached agency, who asked not to be named for lack of authority to speak to the media.

Based on the TCCP, the unliquidated cargoes should have been forfeited in favor of the government and auctioned off to raise additional revenue.

Imported helicopter

U-Freight also owes the bureau an explanation for the allegedly anomalous presence at its warehouse of an imported helicopter that has two airway bills (AWBs), said Customs operatives interviewed for this story.

“One AWB says the helicopter came from Poland while the other says the same aircraft originated from the United States,” said one of the BOC personnel. “For sure, one of the AWBs is fake.”

Asked if the investigation would continue despite Lina’s appointment as Customs boss, the BOC official said, “Trabaho lang po ito, walang personalan (It’s just work. Nothing personal).”

In a related development, Sevilla on Monday issued a statement denying reports that Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. and Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima had pressured him to quit his BOC post.

“On the contrary, they urged me to remain at the bureau,” he said, noting “my resignation from Customs was my decision alone.”

He clarified reports that he resigned as he “disagreed with the prospective appointment of lawyer Teddy Raval as director of the Customs Enforcement and Security Service and believed that it would be better for Customs to be held by someone who could better navigate a more political environment than me while continuing structural reforms.”

Sevilla also pointed out that no one from the Iglesia ni Cristo ever contacted him directly. “As such, I have no direct confirmation that the INC was truly pushing Atty. Raval’s reassignment or appointment.”

The ex-BOC chief expressed hope that “all Customs stakeholders will work together with Commissioner Lina toward our common goal of a Bureau of Customs that is efficient, effective and free of corruption and politics.”

“Toward this end, Commissioner Lina and Secretary Purisima will have my support and any help they may need from me,” he added.