DA official denies colluding with 'garlic cartel'

MANILA, Philippines – Former Bureau of Plant Industry Director Clarito Barron denied allegations of bribery and colluding with members of a garlic cartel that allegedly caused garlic prices to more than double in 2014.

"We 3 swear that we never, during our service to the government, colluded with cartels. Truth be told, we didn't know there was a garlic cartel because nothing has reached my office as director," Barron said in Filipino in a press conference on Tuesday, January 13.

Sitting beside him were his co-accused Plant Quarantine Chief Merle Palacpac and former Plant Quarantine Chief Luben Marasigan.

His statement comes a week after the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) filed criminal complaints with the Office of the Ombudsman against 119 individuals composed of BPI and Department of Agriculture officials, and private individuals allegedly involved in the cartel.

The NBI report concluded that due to loopholes in the BPI system of issuing plant quarantine clearances, a single person was able to control 75% of all garlic imports in the country. 

Importer Lilia Cruz, also known as Leah Cruz, allegedly used dummies to collect multiple clearances, allowing her to corner a large chunk of the country's garlic supply. 

The resulting cartel was then able to raise prices of garlic which snowballed down the supply chain. By the time the garlic arrived in markets and groceries in July 2014, consumers had to pay more than 100% of the usual market price of garlic.

'No knowledge' 

Barron confirmed that Cruz and her company VIEVA (Vegetable Importers, Exporters and Vendors Association of the Philippines, Inc) Philippines is a BPI-accredited garlic importer. But he denied knowledge that she was the mastermind behind a cartel.

He said the BPI's mandate is to ensure plants from abroad are pest-free when they reach the Philippines. Nowhere in the process of issuing the plant quarantine clearance do they weed out possible dummies.

"We treat importers who apply as an individual accredited importer. We don't check if they are part of a group. As long as we see that they are accredited and they followed the requirements of the BPI then we issue them a plant quarantine clearance," he said. 

The NBI investigation found that 68% of clearances issued by BPI from 2010 to 2014 were given to importers found to be members or dummies of VIEVA Philippines even if there were other accredited and legitimate importers vying for the same permits. 

The NBI alleged that these importers were rejected in favor of the alleged VIEVA dummies "without sufficient reasons," raising the suspicion that BPI officials were colluding with Cruz and her dummies by accepting bribes in exchange for the clearances. 

Barron was evasive when asked about the alleged unfair rejection of other legitimate importers, in favor of VIEVA Philippines.

"We have no knowledge of rejecting such applications," he said.

'No bribes'

Barron also vehemently denied statements by an alleged VIEVA dummy Lilybeth Valenzuela that he accepted bribes in his office from importers wishing to be given a quarantine clearance, including herself. 

"I swear that I never had any personal transaction with Lilybeth Valenzuela," he said. 

He said that Valenzuela was in fact not an accredited importer as she had been claiming and was in fact "involved with the smuggling of carrots and onions." To his knowledge, Valenzuela is a broker for various companies engaged in importation.

Valenzuela had also filed a case against him Barron when he was an assistant director at the BPI in 2005. A year later, Barron was deemed innocent by the Ombudsman for lack of evidence.

Barron appealed to the Ombudsman to conduct a comprehensive investigation that would look at the facts objectively.

"We are hurt and we continue to suffer. We cannot sleep at night. We hope we are still presumed as innocent until proven guilty. We hope the DOJ can be objective in its statements."

Barron, pending the Ombudsman's investigation, has been reassigned as a special technical assistant for field operations service at the DA main office. In the midst of the garlic price increase in July 2014, he had voluntarily resigned from his post as BPI director.

Barron has been a DA employee for 33 years, rising from the ranks since his first job as a technical assistant in the crop protection division.

Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, also blamed by some lawmakers for letting the alleged garlic cartel get past his department, also denied wrongdoing.

In a January 8 press conference, he said that BPI-issued permits are issued at the BPI director level and do not reach his office for approval. 

Since July, the DA and BPI had instituted reforms in the clearance application process, he said. 

"The incoming applications are already being processed online. There is no longer any human intervention."  – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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