Lawyer, two cold storage facility execs held in contempt during House probe
MANILA, Philippines — The House committee on agriculture and food on Tuesday cited a lawyer and two officials of a cold storage facility for contempt after failing to submit the necessary documents during an inquiry into the hoarding of agricultural products.
The individuals were Argo Trading President Efren Zoleta Jr., operations manager John Patrick Sevilla, and lawyer John Ryan Cruz.
This developed after House panel members, specifically SAGIP Party-list Rep. Rodante Marcoleta, during his interpolation of Sevilla, demanded documents that showed the facility’s inventory to assess which part of the supply-demand chain was being exploited by hoarders.
But Argo Trading failed to submit the documents, with Sevilla claiming that his legal counsel told him the documents could not be submitted due to a confidentiality agreement in the contract.
Sevilla, however, was given another chance to cough up the documents in an hour. He agreed.
Upon scrutiny of the documents, House panel members found no confidentiality clause. This prompted lawmakers to compel Sevilla to name the lawyer who advised him against submitting the documents. But Sevilla refused to give in.
“Based on record, Efren Zoleta, and the present operations manager of Argo, the representative today who confirmed this letter, and confirmed to us that they got a legal advice from their lawyer, cannot give the information sought by this committee because of the confidentiality clause in the service contract – it turns out it is false,” said Marcoleta.
“So anong gagawin natin (what will we do)? Whatever is the name of the lawyer?” he added.
Subsequently, Marcoleta moved to cite Sevilla, Zoleta, and the still unnamed lawyer in contempt. The House committee voted on the motion, resulting in 35 of 49 members favoring the move.
Shortly after the hearing was suspended from finalizing the votes, Sevilla named the lawyer John Ryan Cruz.
Later, Sevilla pleaded to the House committee chair, Quezon 1st District Rep. Wilfrido Mark Enverga, to reconsider their decision.
“I humbly request to reconsider because the service agreement we sent on the hard copy there has no watermark but in the soft copy that I sent it’s labeled strictly confidential,” he explained, hoping to save himself from detention.
But Marcoleta insisted: “Huwag na kayong magpalusot baka lalo lang lumaki ‘yung contempt ninyo. Lolokohin ninyo na naman kami (Stop making excuses as you may only make it worse. You will just fool us again).”
“Kaya kayo naco-contempt dahil kasinungalingan ang ginagawa ninyo, Gagawin ninyo kaming tanga rito. Hindi kami tanga. ‘Yung nilagay mong this is ‘strictly confidential’ does not bind this committee,” he added.
(You’re being cited in contempt because of the lies you are doing. You’re trying to make us look stupid here. Well, we are not stupid. The “strictly confidential” label does not bind this committee.)
House Sergeant-at-Arms Napoleon Taas then personally arrested Sevilla and escorted him out of the hearing to the detention room.
According to Enverga, House rules provide that those cited in contempt shall be detained for a period not exceeding 10 days.
Since only Sevilla attended the hearing, Envarga instructed Taas to locate and arrest Zoleta and Cruz.
Tuesday’s House committee hearing on agriculture and food lasted for eight hours.
Romualdez backs panel’s action
Speaker Martin Romualdez issued a statement on Tuesday night, expressing his “full support” to the decision of the committee, citing Sevilla, Zoleta, and Cruz in contempt.
“Malinaw ang layunin namin nang simulan ang mga hearings na ito. Kailangang maipababa ang presyo ng sibuyas sa lalong madaling panahon. Kailangang makilala kung sino ang bumubuo ng kartel na nagmamanipula ng presyo ng bilihin. Kailangang buwagin ang mga kartel na ito na nagpapahirap sa bayan,” said Romualdez.
(Our goal was clear when we started these hearings. The price of onion needs to be brought down as soon as possible. Identifying who forms the cartel that manipulates the price of commodities is necessary. These cartels that are oppressing the people must be dismantled.)
“We will not allow anyone to make a mockery of the hearings now being conducted by the Committee on Agriculture. We expect every resource person invited to tell the truth. No more, no less,” he added.
He then advised those who were invited to attend the hearings to be truthful, warning them that they may suffer the same fate if they did otherwise.