Rodriguez admits asking SRA to draft import order
MANILA, Philippines — Executive Secretary Victor Rodriguez on Tuesday revealed that it was him who asked the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) to draft an order for the proposed importation of 300,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar, but he faulted resigned Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian for supposedly signing the import order arbitrarily in behalf of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. without the latter’s approval.
As the finger-pointing in the botched sugar import controversy involving the unauthorized issuance of Sugar Order (SO) No. 4 approving the importation moved to the Senate, opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros found Rodriguez’s admission “puzzling” since Malacañang had already washed its hands off the order’s issuance.
At the hearing of the Senate blue ribbon committee, Rodriguez said he in fact “confronted” Sebastian about the matter after the former agriculture official attended a meeting at the Palace on Aug. 10 — or two days after the SRA issued the controversial importation order.
Sebastian, however, was adamant that he had authority to sign the document based on a memorandum that Rodriguez himself issued on July 15 designating Sebastian as ex-officio member of the SRA representing Marcos, who has appointed himself concurrent secretary of the Department of Agriculture (DA) that automatically makes him chair of the SRA board.
In a similar hearing at the House of Representatives earlier, Sebastian had argued that he acted on SO 4 based on a July 15, 2022, memorandum from the Office of the Executive Secretary that allegedly gave him the authority to sign contracts for the DA, and that his resignation was merely out of “delicadeza.”
He cited meetings on Aug. 1 and 4 that included the president, Rodriguez, then SRA Administrator Hermenegildo Serafica, and resigned Sugar Board member Aurelio Gerardo Valderrama wherein they agreed to draft a sugar import program for transmittal to the President.
“That gave me the inclination or that gave me the feeling that there is an urgency of this matter that we need to act as soon as possible,” Sebastian told the lawmakers.
“I confronted Sebastian and asked him why he did such a thing behind the President’s back,” Rodriguez told the Senate committee chaired by Sen. Francis Tolentino.
“[He did it] without the President’s knowledge and in an unfair and dishonorable way,” he said.
During their conversation, he claimed that Sebastian admitted that he thought the President was already “OK” with the planned sugar importation.
The executive secretary said he then asked Sebastian to phone Serafica and board member Roland Beltran, who both told Rodriguez that they also assumed that the President had already greenlighted the proposed importation.
Both Serafica, who also appeared at the Senate hearing, and Beltran had quit their posts after Malacañang disowned the sugar order as “illegal.”
Hontiveros said she found it strange that Rodriguez actually had prior knowledge of SO 4 since the Palace had instantly distanced itself from the issue, which the executive secretary described as “sugar fiasco.”
As admitted by Rodriguez, she said the Office of the Executive Secretary received the draft order on Aug. 5, a day after Rodriguez asked the SRA to submit the documents, including an importation plan.
“Rodriguez knew that there was a draft order, an order that [supposedly] received support from stakeholders of the sugar industry,” Hontiveros said.
“Did he mention this at all to his principal? The executive secretary should be protecting the president, isn’t it?” she continued. “Isn’t it the job of the executive secretary to be the gatekeeper?”
“Why suggest that it was your first time to hear about (SO 4) when you were informed and kept in the loop as early as Aug. 5?” she asked.
Hontiveros then moved that Rodriguez, who was allowed by Tolentino to leave the proceedings after delivering his statement, be summoned to the next hearing to allow senators to ask questions regarding his role in the controversy. Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri also questioned the “haste” with which Serafica and Sebastian came up with SO 4, noting that it was submitted just four days after it was brought up to Rodriguez’s attention.
“For me, it is highly irregular,” he said.
More hoarded sugar
This developed as Malacañang on Tuesday vowed that the inspection of warehouses suspected of storing hoarded or smuggled sugar would continue as the government steps up President Marcos’ campaign against hoarders and profiteers.
Press Secretary Trixie Cruz Angeles said in a statement that operatives of the Bureau of Customs (BOC) discovered suspected smuggled sugar, as well as rice, during a surprise inspection of a warehouse in Caloocan City on Monday.
She said the customs inspectors, armed with a letter of authority, swooped down on a warehouse at No. 306 Kabatuhan St. near Deparo Road in Caloocan City and found hundreds of bags of smuggled rice and sugar.
The BOC identified the owners of the warehouse as Melissa and Benito Chua.
Angeles said that based on the report to the President, customs agents forcibly opened the warehouse after the owners and caretaker refused to cooperate with the inspection team.
The secretary did not state the exact amount of the alleged smuggled rice and sugar except to say that they weighed “tons.”
BOC agents, she added, also seized the machines used to repack imported rice and sugar to make it appear that these were locally bought by the warehouse owners.
Small retailers complain
She said that during the weekend, inspectors from the BOC, the SRA, and the DA also visited warehouses in Bulacan, Pangasinan, Pampanga, Batangas, Manila, and even as far as Davao.
Meanwhile, an industry group of smaller and independent supermarkets on Tuesday called for the government to also intervene with sugar suppliers in their behalf, saying that only bigger supermarket chains stood to benefit from the current government measure to address the supply shortage.
Philippine Amalgamated Supermarkets Association (Pagasa) president Steven Cua was referring to the statement from Malacañang last week that the owners of Robinsons Supermarket, SM Supermarket, Puregold Supermarket, and S&R Membership Shopping retail chains have agreed to reduce the suggested retail price of sugar to P70 a kilo.
Cua told the Inquirer that retailers would be shouldering the losses since they would have to lower their prices if they wanted to compete with lower prices from the bigger stores.
“If true, this becomes unfair for the rest of the players in the supermarket industry who also want to sell sugar at a more affordable price. Smaller retailers cannot absorb this loss,” Cua said.
Cua suggested that the government intervene to compel suppliers to sell washed sugar (raw sugar that has not been bleached to become white sugar) to all retailers at P68 a kilo to give them a chance to sell at P70 a kilo and make a 3-percent profit when they sell to consumers.
If the government agrees, “prices of white sugar remain high at the smaller supermarkets but at least they can offer washed sugar at the same price the selected retailers sell their white sugar. Not fair but a better deal for the other players in the industry,” he said.
—WITH A REPORT FROM ALDEN M. MONZON
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