Hontiveros, Tolentino face off over sugar import fiasco
Updated @ 11:28 p.m., Sept. 20, 2022
MANILA, Philippines — New documents supposedly supporting the claim that sugar is in short supply surfaced before the Senate on Tuesday, renewing tension between Senators Risa Hontiveros and Francis Tolentino over the sugar importation fiasco.
Hontiveros questioned a section of the Senate blue ribbon committee’s report on the matter, saying that “there may have been an actual sugar shortage or at the very least, anticipated sugar shortfalls” based on the data from the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA).
“Various government agencies, not just the SRA, were already flagging the sugar shortfall…As early as April 8, 2022, the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) already flagged the limited supply and high prices of refined sugar and declared that domestic production of refined sugar is not enough to meet the local demand,” she said in a mix of English and Filipino.
Hontiveros was referring to a letter written by then-Neda chief Karl Kendrick Chua to former Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez regarding Coca-Cola’s supply gap of 116,000 metric tons.
Tolentino responded by saying he “might not be aware of the letter addressed to Secretary Dominguez, which was not part of the committee report and was never discussed during the committee investigations.”
“All of this will have to be pieced together, and if the purpose of the gentlelady is to have this part of the report, perhaps in the period of amendments, we can incorporate that if indeed the purpose is to establish that there was a sugar shortage, which the report affirmed that there indeed was a sugar shortage. It might be a surplusage, or it might corroborate existing documents made part of this report,” he later added.
Hontiveros hoped that by bringing up this issue during the revision of the panel’s report on the sugar crisis, the legitimacy of the sugar scarcity could be established.
“Not only that there may have been a shortfall or that there was an anticipated shortfall, but that there was already an actually existing [shortfall]. Not only a probable or possible but actually an existing supply shortage already,” she said.
The opposition senator further argued that the SRA data from the past three crop years and the resolutions of stakeholders in the sugar industry, which were all presented during the committee’s investigation, should have been sufficient grounds to claim the existence of a sugar shortfall.
Hontiveros pulled out another document, which shows that a recommendation to import 450,000 metric tons of sugar from Thailand and Brazil was made by the Economic Development Cabinet cluster in their meeting last June 7.
“Even with the recommended 450,000 metric tons of imported sugar combined with 450,000 metric tons of domestic sugar, there is still a supply deficit of 74,000 metric tons of raw sugar,” she detailed.
Tolentino again flagged the additional documents as they had not not been presented and discussed in the series of hearings recently conducted for the committee investigation.
“Extrinsic matters, not part of the committee report, not part of the investigation, although germaine, probably would be beyond the purview of this representation’s knowledge,” he said.
Hontiveros, however, maintained that there was no rule prohibiting the discussion of new evidence relevant to the issue in the plenary.
“I’m not presenting this to the blue ribbon [committee]. I’m presenting this to the plenary, as a member of the plenary. And in any case, public interest and the public’s right to know shall prevail,” she added.
The Senate blue ribbon committee earlier recommended charges against former officials – Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian, SRA administrator Hermenegildo Serafica, and Board members Roland Beltran and Aurelio Gerardo Valderrama Jr. – be filed with the Office of the Ombudsman for their alleged involvement in the sugar importation mess, but the upper chamber’s minority bloc asserted that former Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez is also “not entirely blameless” in this fiasco.
‘I take offense’
Citing the minority report on the probe, Hontiveros said the “badges of good faith” of the accused officials might be used to defend them against offenses that they might have not committed.
But according to Tolentino, this line of defense could be rendered invalid in this case.
Hontiveros then appealed against asserting that good faith could be negated for this incident.
“I hope we refrain from saying that good faith can be negated. Sometimes, innocent people are accused of crimes they possibly did not do, and they turn to good faith as their final attempt to defend themselves. Let’s not deny them this,” she said in a mix of English and Filipino.
Much later in the heated debate between the lawmakers, Tolentino commended the minority bloc for producing a substantial report but explained that “the majority report will prevail.”
He also noted that this is his first time encountering the term “badges of faith,” which Hontiveros responded to by citing a number of Supreme Court cases where this phrase was used in the absence of malice.
“Of course, these cases are quite new. So we should not fault the chair [Tolentino] if he does not know of these new cases,” she added.
Tolentino then interjected to express that he was insulted by such remark.
“I take offense, Mr. [Senate] President, to that attribution… My lack of knowledge should not be implicated here. I have a law exam on Tuesday. So I am still a law student right now. Perhaps your staff are not the law students here,” he said.
Hontiveros, for her part, tried to explain that she meant no offense when she spoke those words.
Tolentino then moved to strike out Hontiveros’ statement from the records, which the latter agreed to do.
“If there is an incumbent law student here, I am the one,” Tolentino fumed.
As the tension in the plenary rose, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri suspended the session.
On its resumption, Hontiveros again apologized for having offended Tolentino.
“I just wish to assure, Mr. [Senate] President and the colleagues, no offense meant. I was simply saying that we should not fault anyone if [they are] not yet aware of these new facts. I just wanted to reassure [you] that there is legal basis for the usage [of the phrase],” she said.
Following the roused argument, the consideration of the panel’s report in the plenary was suspended on the motion of Senate Majority Leader Joel Villanueva.
Rodriguez ‘not entirely blameless’ in sugar import mess — Senate minority report
‘The truth’ to hit Rodriguez; sugar import mess probe still going – Hontiveros
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