The inside story of Atty. Jart Tugade's brief time as LTO Chief

Putangina! Fuck!”

That was from Assistant Secretary Jose Art Tugade, the chief of the Land Transportation Office. Such are words that you’d normally use with friends, and more often than not, it’s in the middle of the night over a few beers. But this was 9:30 in the morning, and instead of alcohol, I was just into my first cup of coffee. 

I can feel the intensity of the frustration he has over how things have turned out. I think he wants to quit. And he’s just 6 months into a job he actually didn’t want. Or need.

ASec. Jayart or Jart, as his friends and colleagues call him, hasn’t been granting interviews with the media and press lately. A string of interviews where words were taken without context have played against him; that’s the last thing he needs after experiencing a series of moves and orders that curtail his powers -administrative or otherwise- as LTO Chief.

Yet we wanted to talk to the man because despite his image on the “two media” (mainstream and social) I was told by friends close to him that he’s a good guy daw. I wanted to get his side, so I’ll give him the benefit of the daw.

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And so a meeting was set, and it was the first thing in the morning. That was strange. The mornings of any head of a major government agency or head of any big company are usually populated with meetings. Yet here I am, walking into the office of the guy that’s leading the national office that manages motoring in the Philippines, and his morning is totally free and clear.

“Welcome!” said the very tall ASec. Tugade as he pointed to the seat at the head of the conference table. “Have a seat here, pare. You’re the boss.”

Anyone with his rank likes to feel like a king, and I fully expected him to be seated at his desk while we sit on one of the two chairs in front. His table has clearly seen quite a bit of wear on the edges and has lots of paper. I awkwardly sit down, disarmed of any such notion that this was a formal interview.

If the name Tugade is familiar, it’s because Jart is the youngest son of Arthur Tugade, the Secretary of Transportation under President Duterte. But during the tenure of his father, Jart had nothing to do with transportation. Actually, he had nothing to do with the government. He was in the private sector.

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Jart Tugade is a barrister and a businessman. He spoke about his career in business, particularly in logistics, farming, and chickens. He jokingly tells us that if we ate at a restaurant, there’s a very good chance the chickens came from his company. If that’s the case, I and my fried chicken-loving team probably made him richer.

This is a guy -sorry, attorney- that has already made his pile of money. I could probably have asked him for his SALN, and he would have probably obliged and headed on over to his desk and made a photocopy on the machine next to his monitor. But the natural question to ask was why join the LTO? Why head up one of the agencies that get bashed most on every medium available, be it social or mainstream?

Jart says he wanted a challenge, plain and simple. Money wasn’t the motivation. He already has it. He just wanted to do something that challenged him because he felt he was successful in everything else. He was bored and said he wanted to try and steer LTO and motoring matters for the better. He was looking for a "Mount Everest" to climb, but I don't think he knew it was on East Avenue.

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Contrary to popular belief, his surname had no bearing on his appointment. If you look at any article about the younger Tugade’s appointment as LTO Chief, there is always a mention of the father the DOTr Secretary, but that was under the previous administration. Jart is a friend of President Marcos Jr. while his father is a friend of President Duterte. As early as 2019, Jart agreed to support the campaign in his home province. After the 2022 win, he was being asked what agency he wanted to lead as an appointee but refused. He tells us that Malacanan kept asking, so he said might as well be Manila’s airports as MIAA chief.

That choice Tugade made was purely out of convenience. Jart lived in Paranaque. The man can live another dream and probably walk to the airport in PJs or shorts every day. Politics, however, prevented Tugade from assuming the post even though he was already announced. So the LTO became the second option, and he was announced as the new LTO Chief in November.

Still, there were politics and interests that didn’t want him at that spot, and it needed careful navigation. Think of a trained soldier trying to chart a path through a minefield using just a knife. That’s what it’s like, and the cost of a mistake is very high. Still, he was optimistic he can do good at the post because he saw it as a simple and straightforward agency.

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“The job itself is easy. We only have two things to do: licenses and plate numbers. That’s it pare,” said the LTO Chief.

He’s not wrong. We only measure the LTO by the availability of plates and licenses. If there is a steady stream of plates and cards, there are no complaints. A quiet motoring public means they’re doing their job. There will be no pat on the back or public congratulations or confetti poppers if they’re doing a good job. There are only complaints if they messed up.

He himself was a critic of the LTO as a private citizen practicing law and business. He remembers the days when we all felt the de-evolution of the words below your actual plate number: Pilipinas to Philippines 2000 to Angat Pinoy 2004 to Perlas ng Silangan (Pearl of the Orient) to Matatag na Republika (Strong Republic) to No Plate Available. Or Republika ng Walang Plaka. All he needs to do is manage the agency like a business: just ensure a steady stream of products (licenses and plates) and you're good. Everything else is just a detail. It's simple. 

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In November 2022 he finally got to sit down as Assistant Secretary to lead the LTO, he ordered an inventory be taken of their existing license plates and license ID cards. That’s a typical move in any business; check your SKUs and make a list of existing stocks of your product. When they completed, he got the picture: cards and plates will last only until mid-2023. That’s right about now.

When the announcement was made that LTO regional and extension offices were beginning to run out of cards, Tugade laments the bashing they got on social media, mainstream media, and the congressional hearings. I told him we bashed the LTO too, especially when the first photos of laminated temporary licenses printed on paper started circulating on soc med. It’s not easy for someone used to winning in life to get bashed online by anonymous keyboard warriors and trolls.

Tugade walked over to his bookcase to look for a folder; normally a department head would have an assistant do that, but he insisted. This was a guy used to do it himself. He pulled the correct folder out, and as he walked back I knew this was going to be interesting: the folder had a near-infinite number of taped tabs of lettered annexes for every document in it.

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What it basically showed was a timeline of events from when they took the inventory to the present day. It showed the numerous letters that the Assistant Secretary wrote (lawyers love to write letters) to his superiors to sound the alarm about the plate and card situation as soon as they learned of the coming shortage. It showed a series of decisions from above that make little sense such as the exclusion of the LTO from the BAC (Bids and Awards Committee) to replenish the cards despite the LTO being the end user that will then distribute it to motorists. That has since been rectified, but too much time has been wasted in the back-and-forth.

He even wrote letters to other senior officials in the executive and legislature to ask for help; he was practically pleading and begging for support to tackle the incoming problem the LTO will face in just a few months. They saw it coming, but no help came.

Crucially, it showed the amount he was authorized to sign for as the head of the Land Transportation Office: PHP 50 million. To you and me that will seem like a huge amount, but in government terms that’s the equivalent of your first credit card limit as a young twenty-something starting out in the world. He questioned why he was only allowed to sign for PHP 50 million when his immediate predecessor was given the authority to sign for PHP 1 billion. That’s a PHP 950 million difference. The answer he received: You are not your predecessor.

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Shouldn’t the amount be standardized to the holder of the office as LTO Assistant Secretary regardless of the name of the actual person? Even if he was authorized for just 1/4 of what his predecessor was given, the mess with licenses would have been solved, as the replenishment of cards with all the security features will have cost around PHP 240 million.

ASec. Jart Tugade knows his reputation will take a big hit in this challenge he took on based on the availability of licenses and plates. Right now they are failing at both, and the situation is out of his hands. If anything, it appears he has been isolated in his spot, and the clearest indicator is the time we spent sitting in his office. We started this meeting at 9:00 in the morning, and it’s already 10:45 on a Wednesday, and not a single person has knocked on the door to talk to him or ask for a signature to approve anything. He even says that when his own people ask for a leave, they don't come to him for permission; they go to the parent department. He is an island of one. 

Tugade’s hands are tied, but you do what you can to try and effect change for the better. He and his team pushed to remove the silly periodic medical exam for every 10-year license holder and give a cost ceiling for driving schools. He and his team pushed to improve computerization with the existing system and to explore the implementation (with the DICT) of a digitally accessible license similar to what the PNP has for firearm licenses. Every step of the way he sought to make life a little more convenient and more affordable for motorists. There is no "lagay" with a computer screen and there is no gray area with processes clearly laid out. There have to be hurdles because it is in the hurdles where the money is made at the average motorist’s expense.

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Never have I ever had a conversation with an agency head where all the frustrations were laid out there complete with all the putanginas and fucks as he so eloquently put. The conversations -most of which I cannot repeat- speak of internal and external politics driven by interests. I have a feeling that during the congressional and senate hearings, this is what he really wanted to lay out and how he really wanted to say it without having to say it with all due respect every single time.

My friend who set up this meeting was actually hesitant to do so. He has already been approached by other friends to set up a meeting with his buddy the LTO Chief; the goal of which was to pitch their company’s services. I had no such commercial aspirations. I just wanted to talk to the man. There is no money or favor or power to be gained by talking to him; if anything, there is only risk.

This isn't a puff piece. I don't like writing those and I never will. Whether you believe that is up to you, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt... not just daw.

Tugade won’t last at LTO. He knows it. Even we were joking with Jart about a possible resignation, all while his immediate lieutenant at LTO Central was shaking her head and quietly saying no.

True enough, LTO Assistant Secretary Jart Tugade just resigned today. That is the real shame.

No successor has been named yet.