Familiar taste? Senate starts probe into 2nd sugar import fiasco under Bongbong Marcos admin
MANILA, Philippines — The Senate on Monday marked the resumption of the session with the long-awaited start to its investigation into the second sugar import irregularity in less than a year under the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
It had been more than two months since Senator Risa Hontiveros filed Senate Resolution No. 497, calling for the Senate blue ribbon committee to conduct an inquiry in aid of legislation into reports on the entries of sugar shipments in Philippine ports ahead of the issuance of Sugar Order (SO) No. 6.
She also sought to look at the provisions of the order which may make sugar imports vulnerable to abuse, patronage, and cartelization.
Hontiveros questioned the release of SO No. 6 without the signature of President Marcos, who concurrently holds the roles of Secretary of the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA).
SO No. 6 authorized the importation of 440,000 metric tons of the sweetener. But it was signed six days after 260 containers of refined sugar already arrived at the port of Batangas on February 9. The shipment was aboard vessels reportedly consigned to All Asian Countertrade Inc.
“Since these are not covered by SO [No.] 6, there is no other conclusion but to say that these sugar shipments are smuggled. What other conclusion can be drawn other than that this is government-sponsored smuggling?” Hontiveros pointed out.
Bersamin, Panganiban in hot seat
According to the Senate guest list, Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin and DA Senior Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban are among the witnesses or resource persons for the public hearing.
To recall, Panganiban confirmed giving the SRA clearance to release the imported sugar to three handpicked sugar traders – All Asian Countertrade, Edison Lee Marketing Corp., and S&D Sucden Philippines Inc.
All Asian Countertrade was allotted 240,000 metric tons, while Edison Lee Marketing and S&D Sucden Philippines were given 100,000 metric tons each.
Panganiban also admitted to “acting with haste” as he argued having misinterpreted a memorandum issued by the Office of the Executive Secretary as the go-ahead for the sugar importation.
“With the urgency of the situation, I instructed three capable and accredited companies to proceed with the importation of the sugar, provided that they agree to reduce the prices of sugar,” he said.
But Hontiveros had expressed doubts about Panganiban’s justification.
In Senate Resolution No. 497, Hontiveros wrote: “At a time of high prices and sugar shortages, it is imperative to review policies that allow the favoring of powerful players and importers and create virtual monopolies on basic commodities.”
The opposition senator later pointed out that this bitter controversy is much worse than merely being a “state-sponsored formation of a cartel.”
“It is a cartel that generates super profits, none of which will go to the National Treasury. We have never encountered such a flagrant form of monopoly,” Hontiveros said partly in Filipino during a previous press conference.
She claimed the three chosen sugar importers might be getting at least P7 billion in “super profits” by selling the commodity at an “appalling” price.
Hontiveros also called out the “irregular” selection of the sugar traders, raising questions about a photo circulating online of President Marcos, Panganiban, and Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez with key executives of All Asian Countertrade, Edison Lee Marketing, and S&D Sucden Philippines.
During the more than two months waiting for the Senate investigation to start, Hontiveros repeatedly called for authorities to act urgently and get to the bottom of the so-called “Sugar Fiasco 2.0.”
“The nation has been duped again. We should not let this go unanswered,” she stressed.