Senate body seeks raps vs officials in sugar fiasco

A vendor repacks sugar at Quinta Market in Quiapo, Manila, Aug. 11. — Photo by Edd Gumban, The Philippine Star

THE SENATE blue ribbon committee has recommended criminal and administrative charges against agriculture and sugar officials for approving 300,000 metric tons of sugar imports amid rising prices and tight supply, allegedly without the president’s consent.

In a committee report, the body accused the officials, who later quit their jobs, of serious dishonesty, grave misconduct and insubordination, and gross neglect of duty in connection with the import order that President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. vetoed last month.

Recommended charged criminally and administratively were resigned Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio S. Sebastian, former Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) Head Hermenegildo R. Serafica, and former SRA board members Aurelio Gerardo J. Valderrama, Jr. and Roland B. Beltran.

The committee accused the officials of corruption, violation of the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act and of usurpation of functions under the Revised Penal Code.

The officials were “found liable because of the weight of the evidence, documentary- and testimony-wise, that resulted in the rebuttal of whatever good faith or regularity in the performance of duty,” Senator Francis N. Tolentino, who heads the committee, told a news briefing on Wednesday.

Fourteen committee members signed the report, with one dissent. The Senate gave media a summary of the report, which had not been made public.

“We expected this outcome but we kept our faith in the process,” Mr. Serafica said in a statement. “It is just unfortunate though that despite the pieces of evidence that we presented, they were not given weight.”

He also promised to cooperate with further probes. “My conscience is clear. I have nothing to hide.

I fervently pray that in the end of all of these, the truth will come out and justice will be served.”

Senator Ana Theresia “Risa” N. Hontiveros-Baraquel, the lone dissenter, said some officials were made to be “fall guys.” While the president can override policy, it was clear that he knew of the import plan, she said in a statement.

She also said the Senate findings would dissuade state officials “from acting with urgency on matters that affect consumers like tight supply, high prices and inflation.”

“I believe Undersecretary Sebastian when he said he was of the good faith belief that the importation not only was necessary, it had the support of the chief executive,” Ms. Hontiveros said.

She said she agreed with the findings of the committee that there “may have been” a sugar shortage. 

“Facts don’t lie. The numbers don’t lie. I hope this puts to rest all speculation that the shortage is artificial,” she said in a statement. “These optics need to be seen against the data — how much sugar do we as a country actually consume and how much are we producing locally.”

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Martin D. Pimentel III, who did not vote, told the same briefing the minority would issue its own report on the investigation.

Mr. Tolentino said that the minority report would also be debated in plenary.

On Ms. Hontiveros’ claim that some officials had become fall guys, he said: “That’s her opinion, but with all due respect to the minority, we abided by all the requests including the issuance of subpoena.”

The committee also recommended legislation meant to “eject transparency and accountability in the process of issuing import permits and other critical issuances.”

It also proposed to increase the board members of the sugar agency to eight from three. The new members should represent industrial and household consumers, sugar workers and other stakeholders.

The body also cited the need to review and rationalize the government’s sugar import policy. The SRA should “prepare a sugar importation plan with appropriate safeguards clearly specified for review of higher authorities.

Mr. Serafica at the last hearing on Sept. 6 said Mr. Marcos had proposed to import 600,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar.

“The president mentioned about a volume of 600,000 MT,” Mr. Serafica, who resigned last month after signing the import order, told senators.

Executive Secretary Victor D. Rodriguez denied the claim at the same hearing.

Mr. Serafica, who said Mr. Marcos had suggested the amount at a “hybrid” meeting, told senators he disagreed with the proposal.

He claimed to have told the president on Aug. 4 that 600,000 MT was too much since cane delivery from farmers had started and milling was about to begin.

Mr. Valderrama, the former SRA board member, backed Mr. Serafica’s claim about the Aug. 4 meeting. — Norman P. Aquino and Alyssa Nicole O. Tan

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