Passport racket at DFA

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Street Talk by GREG B. MACABENTA

Remember the classic retort of a mid-level government appointee of then newly-installed President Joseph “Erap” Estrada when asked why he was engaging in graft so early in the administration’s tenure?

“Weather-weather lang iyan!”

The term literally means “pana-panahon” in Tagalog which loosely means “It’s our time to take advantage of our power. After all, if not now, when? If not us, who?”

Well, the Estrada government did not have a monopoly on “weather-weather.” From reports, the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo transformed graft and corruption into an art form, along with the term “Garcification.” President Benigno Aquino III’s tenure wasn’t as clean as was touted when he ran for the presidency. It was during his watch that the multi-million peso pork barrel rackets and the “presidential pork” scandal were uncovered.

And now comes the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. Remember the high expectations of a corrupt-free government? Well, so much for that. It’s been back to weather-weather all over again, both in high places and in those places were termites proliferate.

Allegations of bigtime smuggling and unliquidated expenditures on ghost employees have been bugging members of Duterte’s family. And the recent embarrassment has been the revelation of millions of pesos being passed off to relatives and favored groups by then Tourism Secretary Wanda Tulfo Teo and Tourism Promotions head Cesar Montano.

And then, recently, Solicitor General Jose Calida was said to have cornered millions in sweetheart government contracts for his family business, ostensibly owned and operated by his family and not by him.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque tried to justify Calida’s weather-weather violation of the provision on “conflict of interest,” covered by Article VII, Section 13 of the Constitution.

According to mischievous pundits, Roque, said to be a specialist on Constitutional Law, may have derived his opinion from the Low School of Saint Andrew’s Field (Mababang Paaralan ng San Andres Bukid).

Those are just the recent instances of corruption in high places in the Duterte government.

Meanwhile, the termites are gnawing at the fabric of every government office while nobody is looking, and these pernicious termites are in cahoots with private businesses and abetted by citizens who are either unwary or don’t mind breaking the law in order to “facilitate” their need for government services.

I have just been furnished a copy of a letter to Duterte written by a friend of mine, Gerry Palabyab that is self-explanatory:

“Dear President Duterte:
“May I respectfully bring to your attention an anomaly at our DFA that is depriving thousands of ordinary Filipinos and Dual Citizens the Consular/Passport services that they deserve. It appears that some DFA people, particularly those in charge of the Online-Passport Appointment System have connived with third parties and travel agencies to corner and monopolize passport appointments, for the purpose of selling the slots at the rate of PHP 800 to PHP 2,000 per slot to passport applicants…

“From my own interview with a DFA representative at ASEANA, DFA hopes to open about 2,000 slots starting May 28, 2018. This does not come close to the number of people applying. Worse, within minutes of May 28, 2018, all available slots for June and July 2018 mysteriously vanished.

“The following days of May 29 and today, May 30, slots are openly for sale at Facebook by third parties and travel agents. The cheapest was PHP 800 for a slot on the first week of June. It quickly went up to PHP 1,000 upon my inquiry.

“I have saved the screen shots of my exchanges with the seller who, according to her openly sells the slots.”

The amount charged by the fixer is on top of that charged by DFA for passports. Palabyab, a former editor of Manila Bulletin USA in the San Francisco Bay Area, is familiar with these civil service termites. He was at one time a regional director of the Professional Regulatory Commission and during his tenure, he uncovered and busted a racket in which appointments for licensure examinations for seamen were being sold by fixers.

While the online appointment system is supposed to be for the “convenience” of the public, the experience of one harassed passport applicant, related by ABS-CBN News, tells us otherwise.

The headline reads: “Binuksang 100,000 passport appointment slots ng DFA, agad naubos.” (100,000 passport appointment slots immediately used up.)

When the hapless applicant tried to arrange an appointment online, the process turned out to be tedious and complicated:

“Nung may nakita ako earliest date, loading lang siya ng loading. Ang bagal,” reported the applicant. “Lahat pa ng in-enter mo na info bigla na lang mabubura. Nagba-blangko umano ang website ng DFA. Sa katunayan, isang oras at kalahati matapos ang anunsiyo, naubos agad ang mga slots.”

(When I saw the earliest date, it (the system) just kept loading. So slow. Whatever I entered got erased. The DFA website would go blank. In truth, an hour and a half after the announcement (about the availability of appointment slots), the slots were all used up.)

This confirms the complaint of Palabyab that ”within minutes of May 28, 2018, all available slots for June and July 2018 mysteriously vanished.”

It turns out that the reason for the “mysterious” disappearance of the appointment slots is that they are cornered by travel agency fixers who openly pitch their services on social media:

“Rush Passport Appointment Slot. Legit not a scam. Pm lang po. Para lang po sa mga busy at hindi mkakuha ng appointment, mga maayos kausap at sure na magbabayad!

Appointment first before payment para iwas hinala ! Pm is the keyyy. Salamat promise “
To be sure, the DFA has warned the public against dealing with fixers, pointing out that many have come to grief after parting with their money.

One news item released by the DFA detailed the scams being perpetrated by the fixers:
“They fill-up application forms and then put fake barcodes and appointment details. When applicants go to consular offices, they find out they were sold fake slots.

“The second scheme involves fixers making those entitled to use the courtesy lane believe they need an appointment for passport application.

“Under existing guidelines, seniors, minors 7 years and below, persons with disabilities, single parents (with Solo Parent ID) and their minor children, pregnant women with medical certificate, and migrant workers with sufficient proof of status may apply for passports at DFA consular offices without online appointments. So they pay enterprising individuals and they get referred to the courtesy lane.

“The third scam is obtaining endorsements from government agencies. He said a fixer could be working in cahoots with government employees or that the offices genuinely give endorsements without knowing that these are being sold.

“The last scheme is where a fixer fills out an online appointment form using the personal information of their clients. The fixers make it appear to the public that they have reserved slots or that they can easily get appointments for a fee. In fact, the DFA appointment system is free of charge.”

The DFA should do more than put out warnings to unwary scam victims. The termites in the passport section have to be exterminated and the conniving travel agencies and fixers should be penalized or banned from dealing with the department.

But most of all, citizens who want to apply for passports should plan way in advance of their intended overseas travel. And if they still persist in dealing with the fixers, they probably deserve their sad fate.

It takes two to pull off a bribery or a scam.

(gregmacabenta@hotmail.com)

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