Senate grills officials linked to sugar importation mess, ES explains side

Senators on Tuesday grilled resigned Agriculture undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian about the unauthorized order to import 300,000 metric tons of sugar, but Senator Risa Hontiveros raised questions about the involvement of the Executive Secretary Victor Rodriguez.

Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez

At the Blue Ribbon committee hearing on Sugar Order No. 4, Hontiveros said there seemed to be a disconnect between Malacanang’s claim that Rodriguez had no prior knowledge of the order, when a memo dated July 15 suggested his office was in the loop.

The memo authorized Sebastian to sit as ex-officio member of all duly constituted committees and bodies where the Department of Agriculture secretary is a member.

At a hearing at the House of Representatives Monday, Sebastian said he signed SO 4 based on the authority given to him by Rodriguez through the July 15 memo.

Although Hontiveros noted Sebastian’s statement that he may have misread the intent of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who sits as DA secretary and chairman of the Sugar Regulatory Administration, she asked why SO4 was still approved and why did Rodriguez not immediately bring this to the attention of the President.

Hontiveros then reiterated her call to immediately appoint a competent Agriculture secretary who would focus on preventing a looming sugar supply crisis.

Rodriguez attended and made an opening statement at the Blue Ribbon committee hearing but immediately excused himself afterwards. This prompted Hontiveros to file a motion to recall him in the next hearing as many questions remained unanswered.

Rodriquez confirmed to the committee that President Marcos did not give the authority to release the sugar order.

The Palace official described as “unfair and dishonorable” the signing of SO No. 4 without the authority from President Marcos.

He recalled they were in a meeting in Malacañang on Aug. 10 when they learned that Sebastian passed a resolution approving SO4 without the knowledge of Mr. Marcos.

He said the resolution was also approved without submitting to them the import plan and without even convening the board of the SRA.

The President then instructed Rodriquez to make sure that the SO No. 4 would not come out and would have “no force and effect.”

Rodriguez also remembered that on Aug. 5, they got a memo from Sebastian containing the recommendation to import 300,000 MT of sugar.

The resigned agriculture official sent two text messages on Aug. 7 and Aug. 8 to him, asking about sugar and fertilizer for farmers.

Rodriguez said he “purposely” did not respond to the queries because there was no decision yet at that time.

In defending his action, Sebastian said he thought everything was okay with President Marcos when he failed to receive any response to his briefing on the rise in the price of sugar and its diminishing supply.

But Senator Ronald dela Rosa said this was an unacceptable reason.

“Is there a bigger reason why you signed it?” he asked Sebastian.

But Sebastian stood pat on his assertion that he merely did his job as he braced for a sugar shortage.

If he did not act, Sebastian said he might be reprimanded so he just took the risk.

Acknowledging that Sebastian was well-known in the agriculture industry, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said he believed the resigned Agriculture official did not do this alone.

The Senate leader also refuted the claim of the SRA about a looming sugar shortage, noting that several raids done on warehouses in Quezon City, Laguna, Bulacan and Pampanga yielded thousands of tons of sugar.

But Sebastian justified the importation, saying the country’s monthly consumption of raw sugar is 170,000 metric tons and 85,000 metric tons of refined sugar. He also said the country has a deficit of over 200,000 metric tons of raw sugar even if the milling starts in September and October.

“There was nobody who pushed me or pressured me on this matter. I signed for the Secretary of Agriculture based on the authority that was given to me on July 15, 2022,” Sebastian said.

“The memo states that I can sit as ex-officio chair of boards, committees, etcetera of any government agency where the secretary of agriculture is a member. The SRA board is one of those boards where the secretary of agriculture sits as ex-officio,” he added.

At the same hearing, the president of the United Sugar Products Federation (Unifed), Manuel Lamata, said they were duped by the SRA into endorsing SO No. 4 by being made to believe that the President had ordered the importation of sugar.

“We were made to believe that the President ordered the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar because it was a national emergency. So we signed, because who are we to question the wisdom of the President?” Lamata said.

He added that they were shocked to later learn the order was illegal.

For its part, the Palace said the government would continue to move against warehouse owners and caretakers who hoard sugar.

Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles made this remark after the Office of the President confirmed that the supposed sugar shortage in the country is “artificial” and merely caused by hoarding done by unscrupulous traders.

She said surprise warehouse visits will continue in the following days.

Since last week, simultaneous operations were conducted by the Bureau of Customs, the Sugar Regulatory Administration, and the Department of Agriculture to inspect sugar warehouses in Deparo, Caloocan City; Balut in Tondo and San Nicolas in Manila; Rosales, Pangasinan; San Fernando, Pampanga; Ibaan, Batangas, and Davao.

Cruz-Angeles said the Palace will also wait for results of the congressional probes into issues hounding the sugar industry.

Meanwhile, the SRA said the Philippines might be allocating all the sugar produced during the next crop year for local use.

In a statement, SRA Acting Administrator David Alba said that the “Sugar Board was recently convened by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and we were directed to immediately come up with Sugar Order No. 1 regarding sugar allocation.”

Alba said the Sugar Board recommended that all sugar for crop year 2022-2023 will be classified as “B” sugar or domestic sugar.

The SRA classifies and allocates sugar produced as “A” for US quota, “B” for domestic consumption, “C” for reserve, and “D” for the world market.

“There will be no allocation for the US quota,” Alba said.

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