Senate to push raps vs. people in sugar mess

Charges will be filed against personalities involved in approving the controversial Sugar Order No. 4 once the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee releases the findings of its investigation on Thursday, Sept. 8, Sen. Francis Tolentino said yesterday.

TRYING TO EXPLAIN. After missing two consecutive hearings despite repeated invitations, Executive Secretary Victor Rodriguez appears before Senate Blue Ribbon Committee Tuesday, September 6, 2022 to clarify what transpired before the issuance of the controversial Sugar Order No. 4.

This came as Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez attended the Senate panel’s hearing on Tuesday morning after the Blue Ribbon committee voted to subpoena him to shed light on the sugar importation fiasco.

Rodriguez also refuted the claim of the resigned Sugar Regulatory Administration officials that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had mentioned in a meeting last month that the country would need to import 600,000 metric tons of sugar – double the amount proposed under SO No. 4.

At a press conference, Tolentino, who chairs the Blue Ribbon panel, said the 10-page committee report would recommend the filing of charges against certain individuals over the release of the sugar order that Malacañang had called illegal.

“Definitely, charges will be filed. Just wait for it for just two more days,” Tolentino said.

He said the appearance of Rodriguez, who was grilled by senators on the aborted sugar importation, clarified the contradictory statements of some resource persons “and pressing issues which emanated from his testimony.”

After the cross-examination of Rodriguez, Tolentino terminated the hearings, which reached three sessions.

Asked if former SRA Administrator Hermenegildo Serafica, Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian, and former Sugar Board members Aurelio Gerardo Valderrama Jr. and Roland Beltran would be charged for signing the controversial SO4, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said “violations” were committed.

“I will wait for the results of the (Blue Ribbon) report, but they have violated rules and procedures,” Zubiri said.

Serafica on Tuesday told the committee that the President mentioned in a supposed hybrid meeting of the sugar board last August 4 that 600,000 metric tons of sugar might need to be imported in the country — a statement backed by Valderrama and refuted by the Executive Secretary.

The former SRA chief told senators that he told Mr. Marcos the proposed order “might be too much” as the sugar milling season was about to open then.

“I said, ‘Mr. President, that may be too much because starting August 1, First Farmers (Holding Corporation) have already accepted canes delivery from farmers and any time this week they will start milling,’” he said.

“Yes, this was discussed in our Zoom meeting together with the President and he mentioned the 600,000 but former administrator Serafica said that it might be too much because the milling season is about to open,” Valderrama added.

Rodriguez denied this, saying there was no truth that Marcos pitched for such a volume of sugar.

“Wala hong binabanggit na amount in terms of quantity si kagalang-galang na Pangulo Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. pagdating doon sa metric tons na kailangang i-angkat. Kaya po tayo naipit doon sa import plan pa lamang dahil hindi nga po kami kumbinsi sa 300,000 metric tons,” he said.

[The honorable President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. had not mentioned an amount in terms of quantity on the metric tons (of sugar) that needed to be imported. That’s why we stalled on the import plan stage because we were not convinced of the need for 300,000 metric tons.]

The Palace had said the Sugar Board had convened and issued a resolution without the approval of the President, who’s also the concurrent Agriculture Secretary and chairman of the board.

Sebastian, as Mr. Marcos’ chief of staff at the Department of Agriculture, was representing the President on the sugar board and eventually signed SO4.

But he, Serafica, and Beltran quit their posts after the Palace declared the import move illegal. Sebastian’s resignation is still under the Palace’s consideration.

“To the extent of what the penalties are and what the exact terminologies will be… I will leave it to the good gentleman from the Blue Ribbon Committee to come up with the findings,” Zubiri added.

“But as far as I’m concerned, there were violations of procedures, particularly on hastily signing SO Number 4,” the Senate President said.

Zubiri also backed Rodriguez, saying he does not believe that Mr. Marcos would ask for importation of such a huge amount for the commodity.

“The President already turned down 300,000 metric tons, what of 600,000 more? I don’t believe the President had said that. Impossible. The President will not come up with a figure from the top of his mind,” Zubiri told Serafica, warning him he was “very close to being cited for contempt.”

In response, the former SRA administrator insisted that was what he heard.

“‘Yung 600,000 po, Mr. Chair, hindi po ‘yan galing sa’kin. ‘Yung binanggit ni Presidente na 600,000, sabi ko po, Mr. President, that might be too much,” he said.

[The 600,000 (figure), Mr. Chair, did not come from me. The 600,000 mentioned by the President, I said, Mr. President, that might be too much.”

In an executive session, 11 senators voted for the issuance of a subpoena to the Executive Secretary, while three senators opposed and another three abstained.

Deputy Minority Leader Sen. Risa Hontiveros had repeatedly insisted on issuing a subpoena to Tolentino, who earlier presented to the Senate panel his letter, saying “he will no longer be able to attend per instructions of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.”

But upon learning that a subpoena was issued against the Executive Secretary, President Marcos instructed Rodriguez to attend Tuesday’s hearing.

Rodriguez said he has “no intention whatsoever to disrespect the honorable members of the Senate and the Senate institution.”

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III agreed with Zubiri, noting the BRC can just come up with one final report.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa assailed officials of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the DA for pointing an accusing finger against each in controlling the increase in the price of sugar.

Director Marcus Valdez of the DTI Consumer Protection and Advocacy Group said sugar is not within their jurisdiction, since it is not considered a basic necessity.

Dela Rosa countered this and insisted otherwise, saying people need sugar.

“Regardless of agricultural or industrial, still when it comes to price manipulation, that should be your turf,” pointed out Dela Rosa.

He also related that the Anti-Panic Buying and Anti-Hoarding laws are only applicable to face masks and PPEs during the time of the pandemic, and not to sugar.

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