‘Central figure’ in smuggling falls ill in Senate probe
MANILA, Philippines – Bombarded with questions about his ties to smugglers, a businessman working for a top rice importer fell ill in the middle of a Senate hearing.
Eugene Pioquinto of Starcraft International Trading at first tried to distance himself from individuals investigated for smuggling, but when the Senate agriculture committee presented vacation photos of them together and a Commission on Audit (COA) report, Pioquinto got sick and asked to be excused.
Committee chairperson Senator Cynthia Villar told him, “Mr Pioquinto, we believe you are testifying falsely and evasively so we hope you change before we will be forced to cite you in contempt if you don’t answer these questions."
“We are conducting an inquiry and we think you’re part of the system we’re investigating,” Villar said at the resumption of the Senate probe into rice smuggling on Tuesday, March 11.
She was referring to a scheme where big-time financiers use farmers’ cooperatives as dummies to secure rice importation permits.
Pioquinto soon stepped out of the room. Villar said he was vomiting and will be questioned in the next hearing.
Citing a COA report on the National Food Authority (NFA), Villar tagged Pioquinto as a “central figure” in rice smuggling, being the runner for several companies and persons linked to smuggling including Davidson Bangayan. Bangayan is suspected to be rice smuggler David Tan.
At the start of the hearing, Pioquinto said Magdangal Diego Maralit Bayani III was just his acquaintance. In the 15th Congress, Bayani was detained at the Senate for 45 days over alleged rice smuggling. Villar then presented photos of Pioquinto and Bayani on trips with their families, and even zip-lining together.
Pioquinto also denied working with broker Emmanuel Santos, who admitted in a previous hearing that he was a business partner of Bangayan and Pioquinto. Addressing the COA report, Pioquinto said he merely “borrowed” documents of the rice importing companies and did not process these.
Villar did not believe him. “Bakit mo hihiramin iyon? Aanhin mo iyon? Kasama ka nila eh…. Ang iba ginagamit ninyo, inadmit na rin ni Mr Bangayan. You get their permits and you process that, kalakaran.”
(Why will you borrow the documents? What for? You are part of their group. You are using other coops, as admitted by Bangayan. That’s the practice.)
The agriculture committee also cited rice broker Elizabeth Faustino in “conditional contempt” for again failing to show up at the hearing after undergoing a gall bladder operation. Villar ordered Senate doctors to check on her condition and if she is found to have skipped the hearing for no reason, she will be arrested.
Other witnesses were no-shows. Santos supposedly got dizzy and was brought to a hospital hours before the hearing. Alleged rice trader Judilyne Lim reportedly underwent a medical procedure on the same morning of the probe.
Villar asked their lawyers to produce medical certificates lest they be cited in contempt. She retorted, “Siguro 'di ako guilty kaya 'di ako naha-high blood.” (Maybe I am not guilty so my blood pressure does not go up.)
Another broker, Leah Echeveria, is still in hiding after two years. Farmers’ groups got a P200,000 donation for information on her whereabouts.
Rice smuggling is a major problem in the Philippines, leading to the loss of about P8.4 billion in revenues in 2012. Poor farmers are the hardest hit. Once a top rice-exporting country, the Philippines is now one of the world’s biggest rice importers. Rice is the country's primary staple.
‘Only PH farmers paying for irrigation water’
In the hearing, Flordeliza Bordey of the Philippine Rice Research Institute (Philrice) presented a study that found that the Philippines is the only one of 6 countries where farmers pay for the use of irrigation water from state canals. The study compared rice production in the Philippines, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Bordey said the Philippines had the highest rice production cost, with the biggest chunk going to labor. In comparison, countries like Vietnam brought down the labor cost by using machines that have both harvesting and threshing functions.
She recommended that the government provide free irrigation support and mechanization support to farmers to reduce the production cost.
Villar said the Land Bank of the Philippines also has to bring down the interest of loans to farmers. Another recommendation is to increase the budget for intelligence of the Bureau of Customs (BOC).
Yet BOC Commissioner John Philip Sevilla said the agency needed additional funds for expenses like transportation. “Our inspectors told me they cannot do surprise visits of warehouses because there is no transportation budget. Taxi is not reimbursable so the importers even fetch them to do the inspection.”
Sevilla responded to suggestions that the Department of Agriculture (DA) and Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) become more proactive in curbing smuggling. He said he already sent letters to the departments’ secretaries, informing them that he is willing to give them access to the inward foreign manifest.
He said the agencies only need to link to the electronic system of BOC.
DA Secretary Proceso Alcala promised Villar, “We can do this within the week. We will just fix it and submit a report.”
‘PH not yet ready for integration’
Alcala cited the Philrice report to support his department’s position that the quantitative restrictions (QR) or quotas on rice importation should stay in place despite the June 2012 expiration of the Special Treatment for Rice Importation under the World Trade Organization.
“This is the reason we are fighting for QRs. We are not prepared for [liberalization] as of now. That’s the truth. If we lift that now and do not give any help to our farmers, it’s like getting a stone and hitting our own heads with it,” Alcala said.
Senator JV Ejercito said the DA should act with urgency, with only months left before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Free Trade Area starting in 2015. With the competitiveness problem topped with rice smuggling, the rice industry “might die,” Ejercito said.
Villar said the committee will hold one or two more hearings before drafting its report. She said former BOC deputy commissioner for intelligence Danilo Lim wanted to be invited to the next hearing.
Asked what Lim will testify on, Villar said, “Magbibida siya ng (He will boast about) his experience in Customs.” – Rappler.com