Senate told SBMA execs in on rice smugglingBy Norman Bordadora
Philippine Daily Inquirer
A Senate inquiry was told Wednesday that certain officials of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA), a free port zone locator and an Indian rice supplier connived in the attempt to smuggle almost P500 million worth of rice in April.
Executives of Metroeastern Trading Corp, the free port locator to whom the shipment of 420,000 50-kilogram bags of rice was consigned, admitted during the investigation conducted by the agriculture committee that an SBMA executive had asked their help to keep the rice in their warehouse and to look for a buyer in the Philippines.
Cesar Bulaon, one of the owners of Metroeastern, identified the official as SBMA senior deputy administrator for trade and investment Stefani Sano.
He said the persons who engaged them from the Indian rice supplier were a certain Mr. Protik of the New Delhi-based Amira Foods India Limited and a certain Bong Cuevas who was later identified by Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile as Vicente Cuevas.
Enrile said Cuevas was influential during the Arroyo administration.
The Indian rice shipment, official documents showed, was rejected by Indonesian port authorities and was reportedly looking for a free port that would accommodate it.
On Tuesday, the Bureau of Customs announced the seizure of the shipment.
“My information was this is not the only shipment that had gone through SBMA,” Enrile said.
He indicated that a shipment of Mango brand rice had been smuggled into the country through Subic and found its way into the local market.
Enrile noted that no such brand of rice was produced locally.
SBMA officials questioned on Wednesday included administrator Roberto Garcia and senior deputy administrator for operations Redentor Tuazon.
Senator Francis Pangilinan, the committee chairman, said the SBMA officials had a lot of explaining to do.
“It’s clear there are many weird things that happened when this rice shipment entered the country. Many questions need to be answered by officials especially those from the SBMA,” Pangilinan said.
No import permit
Bulaon said Sano called his company to help Amira by accommodating the rice shipment after it was turned back in Indonesia. As a free port locator, Metroeastern can accept the shipment in its warehouses as part of its business.
“For the meantime, it’s just warehousing. They can even instruct us whether they can sell it outside or sell it in the domestic market,” Bulaon said.
On questioning by Senator Ralph Recto, Bulaon admitted that the plan was to sell the Indian rice locally, and they were asked by Sano to help out.
Enrile grilled Tuazon for allowing the Indian rice to be unloaded at the port despite the absence of an import permit from the National Food Authority (NFA).
Tuazon countered that while it was allowed into the port, there was a safeguard in place so that a case for abandonment would proceed if the necessary permits were not submitted within 30 days.
A document was presented during the hearing indicating that the NFA allowed the importation to waive certain taxes.
However, NFA Administrator Lito Banayo told the panel that this was not valid unless the NFA already gave Amira an NFA import permit in March.
He said Amira was not among the NFA’s authorized suppliers from abroad.
Malacañang welcomed the Senate inquiry.
“We hope that the investigation on rice smuggling will result in a clearly defined delineation of liability and that’s what we’re after. Again, we are going after corrupt officials, and so we will not (condone) any corruption in our government,” said presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda in a Palace briefing.
“I am not aware of a Cabinet member involved in smuggling,” said Lacierda, when asked if the executive was already verifying rumors that high officials with close ties to the Palace were the new protectors of big smugglers.
“The instructions given by the President to Commissioner Ruffy Biazon was to ensure that smuggling should stop. And this is another instance where the commissioner has stepped up efforts to curb smuggling in this country,” said Lacierda.
Lacierda cited, for instance, the number of apprehensions Biazon made in the past few weeks.
“We certainly commend the stepped up efforts of Commissioner Biazon—not only in rice smuggling but also in other areas of smuggling; not only blatant smuggling but also technical smuggling, where you undervalue your goods.
“This robs the country of revenues and, therefore, the explicit instruction of the President to Commissioner Biazon is to ensure that we curb smuggling—that we are able to generate revenues as we curb smuggling,” said Lacierda. With a report from Michael Lim Ubac