Senate panel seeks graft charges against them but clears ES Rodriguez
The Senate Blue Ribbon committee on Thursday recommended the filing of graft charges against four officials of the Department of Agriculture (DA) but cleared Executive Secretary Victor Rodriguez.
Committee chairman Senator Francis Tolentino said the charges should be filed before the Ombudsman against Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian, who has been placed under preventive suspension; resigned Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) chief Hermenegildo Serafica; and resigned SRA board members Roland Beltran and Aurelio Gerardo Valderrama Jr.
The committee also said the four officials should be included in the immigration lookout bulletin.
Charges should include violations of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016, and usurpation of official functions under the Revised Penal Code.
Tolentino, who had been quick to defend Rodriguez, said there was no evidence to counter his statements before the committee.
He said copies of the committee report would be furnished to the Department of Justice, the Commission on Audit, and the Office of the Ombudsman for their information and appropriate action.
The committee’s General Counsel Gerard Mosquera said preliminary evidence showed that the four officials have “committed the administrative offenses of serious dishonesty, grave misconduct, gross neglect of duty, conduct prejudicial to the best interest of service, and gross insubordination under the revised rules on administrative cases in the civil service.
Tolentino said 14 of 17 members of the Blue Ribbon committee signed the report with one dissenting opinion from Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros, who maintained that those charged were “mere fall guys.”
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III said they will file a separate report.
“It will still be debated in the plenary,” said Tolentino in a media briefing.
The Committee Report 3 filed on Sept 8, 2022 after the Senate panel conducted three hearings on the fiasco, also recommended the following remedial legislation:
• Amendment of relevant legislation such as Executive Order Number 18, RA 10659, and related laws to inject transparency and accountability in the process of issuing import permits and other critical issuances;
• Amendment of Executive Order Number 18 to provide for the expansion of the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) board to eight members with the Secretary of Agriculture continuing to act as an ex officio chairman and the addition of sectors represented such as additional board members to represent consumers, both industrial and household, sugar industry workers, sugar transportation sector workers, and other stakeholders in the success of the sugar industry; and
• Amendments of Executive Order No. 18 to prohibit the delegation of the authority of the SRA or reclassify sugar.
The committee also called for a review and rationalization of the sugar importation policies of the government; full funding for the Sugar Industry Development Act and the preparation of a sugar importation plan by the SRA with appropriate safeguards clearly specified for review by higher authorities.
The Senate probe on the sugar importation was triggered by Serafica’s issuance of Sugar Order No. 4 which provides for the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar even without the approval of President Marcos.
The DA officials said they were under the impression that President Marcos approved the importation as he did not object to it.
In the House, Rep. Rodante Marcoleta of Sagip party-list group questioned Rodriguez’s absence at the joint investigation of the House committees on good government and public accountability and on agriculture and food on the Sugar Order 4 controversy.
“Why did we not invite the Executive Secretary in order to shed light on these allegations and claims?” Marcoleta asked the joint panel chaired by Reps. Rida Robes of San Jose del Monte City in Bulacan, and Mark Enverga of Quezon.
Marcoleta said Rodriguez should have attended the congressional inquiry since he was present in a meeting with officials of the SRA and instructed them to draft an order for the sugar importation.
“Why would these people draft an order if there was no order coming from above?” Marcoleta said.
House Minority Leader and 4Ps Rep. Marcelino Libanan said “there are other ways to get the answers from Rodriguez aside from inviting himto attend the hearing such as asking them to send position papers or via Zoom.”
But Dasmariñas Rep. Elpidio Barzaga appealed to fellow legislators to consider the workload of Rodriguez, who is considered the “little president,” that caused him to miss the hearing.
At Thursday’s hearing, Albay Rep. Joey Sarte Salceda told acting SRA Administrator David John Thaddeus Alba to commit to basing the import program on a rules-based system.”
“I have here the list of actual import allocations granted by the SRA under Sugar Order No. 3. It does not include a few of the leading players. How did you allocate the import program?” Salceda said.
When Salceda asked whether the SRA follows certain rules in allocating imports, the SRA administrator responded that the Board determines how to equitably allocate the import program.
Salceda also asked whether the SRA conducted an auction of the import slots, to which the SRA said no.
Salceda pointed out that being allowed to import “is a unique privilege.”
“Who allows the big guys to import at P20 and the average citizen from Polangui at P120?” Salceda asked, referring to the price per kilo of imported sugar in the world market, and the retail price in his family’s hometown.
“And how are the big retailers able to promise President Marcos to sell at P70 per kilogram?”
Salceda suggested that an auction of sugar import slots should be conducted, to ensure fair allocation as well as to generate revenues for local industry support.
“Since we impose no tariffs on sugar from our ASEAN neighbors, we should just auction off the slots for auction fees. That can be earmarked for local sugar industry development. That’s much better than setting very random import figures and allocating them arbitrarily among a small number of players.”
Also on Thursday, the Bureau of Customs (BOC) said its personnel discovered thousands of sacks of local and imported sugar and other goods worth P936 million in another series of warehouse inspections in Meycauayan City, Bulacan on Wednesday.
Customs Commissioner Yogi Filemon Ruiz said members of the BOC’s Intelligence and letters of authority and mission orders proceeded to inspect several warehouses in the city.
Ruiz said the group, escorted by the local police and barangay personnel, found 11,717 sacks of local sugar with assorted brands at the warehouse located at B3L5 Kendex Drive, Polyland Industrial Subdivision, Meycauayan, Bulacan.
Also discovered by Customs personnel were 50,182 sacks of MITHR PHOL pure refined sugar from Thailand at the warehouse at B5L5 Kendex Drive, Polyland Industrial Subdivision, and 60,876 sacks of imported sugar of assorted brands from Thailand at the warehouse of Edison Lee MKTG, Dazo Compound in Barangay Iba.
They also proceeded to a storage facility located along Olympia Street, Sterling Industrial Park, also in Meycauayan City, where they found 1,860 sacks of MITHR PHOL pure refined sugar from Thailand.
In another facility along Copper Street, Muralla Industrial Park in Barangay Perez, the team found 62,734 sacks of locally produced sugar of assorted brands, as well as kitchenware and other products.
The joint operation was conducted after the BOC received an intelligence report from the military about suspected warehouses that could be hoarding sugar amid high prices of the commodity.