Zubiri: Rodriguez not part of sugar import mess
MANILA, Philippines — Executive Secretary Victor Rodriguez’s 15-minute appearance at the Senate hearing on Tuesday was enough to convince Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri that the chief aide of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had nothing to do with the foiled attempt to import 300,000 metric tons of sugar.
“I absolutely do not believe that [Rodriguez] is part of this plan of coming out with an illegal order to import sugar,” Zubiri told reporters on Wednesday, a day after the Senate blue ribbon committee opened an inquiry into the sugar importation mess.
“Why? Because he was the one who took [the matter] to the president and told the president about this particular plan, that they already signed an import order without the president’s approval,” he said.
Zubiri was referring to Sugar Order (SO) No. 4, which was signed by resigned Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian on Aug. 8 in behalf of Marcos, who chairs the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) as the acting agriculture secretary.
The importation order was also signed by three former top SRA officials, who had since quit their posts amid the controversy.
“If he was part of this plan, why would [the executive secretary] tell this to the president?” the Senate leader asked.
After Malacañang distanced itself from the issue, Rodriguez admitted during the Senate hearing on Tuesday that it was actually him who asked the SRA to submit a draft sugar order and an import plan after a meeting with Sebastian and then SRA Administrator Hermenegildo Serafica.
He said he received the draft copy of SO 4 on Aug. 5, a day after Serafica informed him of the supposed need to import the commodity.
Zubiri also noted that Rodriguez was a “lawyer, not a farmer nor a member of the stakeholders’ group.”
“If you are in that position that you don’t know anything about the situation, it’s better to ask around first and investigate,” Zubiri said. “And that’s what he did.”
Asked who should be held accountable for the sugar importation fiasco, the Senate president said Serafica should “answer all these charges against him.”
He said Serafica should be held liable for his decision to keep the draft order “secret” from his fellow SRA officials, particularly the three deputy administrators who should have been consulted before the order was released.
Quizzed by Sen. Jinggoy Estrada at the hearing, Serafica disclosed that it was him who wrote the proposed sugar order and that he kept the copy from the SRA officials because “we did not want to let anybody know until it will reach the Office of the President.”
But for opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros, Rodriguez’s brief appearance at the inquiry only showed the “disconnect” between the earlier claim by the Palace that it was unaware of SO 4 and his subsequent admission that he had asked for a draft sugar order.
Competent DA chief
She said the contradiction in the executive secretary’s statement and Malacañang’s position necessitated Rodriguez’s attendance in the next hearing.
“Overall, this just drives home the point that the president should install a competent leadership in the DA (Department of Agriculture),” Hontiveros said in an online press briefing.
“I hope this will not be the portent of things to come because we will have problems on the supply of basic (goods), such as rice, pork, fish, vegetables and fruits,” she added.
It was more worrisome, she said, that there was an apparent attempt to “minimize” the problem by putting the blame on a few government officials.
According to Zubiri, he was also able to speak with the chief executive in Malacañang about SO 4, and Marcos himself told him that Rodriguez had informed him about the unauthorized importation order.
“I was very upset why they came out with such a plan (to import) without consulting the executive secretary and myself on the [volume] of sugar to be imported,” Zubiri recalled the President as telling him.
He said the president believed that the officials behind the order arbitrarily set the volume of sugar that the country supposedly needed without consulting the local sugar planters and millers.
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