MANILA, Philippines – The lawyers of National Food Authority (NFA) administrator Arthur Juan said the National Bureau of Investigation should answer for the premature leakage of an NBI report on an alleged attempt by Juan to extort P15 million from a rice trader.
"We want to call the attention of the Justice secretary because there seems to be violations of regulations on premature disclosure of the results of an official activity. Maybe this report isn't even from the NBI," said lawyer Dennis Villa-Ignacio during a September 23 press briefing.
An NBI agent leaked to media the contents of a report citing evidence that Juan and lawyer Patricia Galang threatened to file charges against rice trader Jomerito "Jojo" Soliman unless he gave them P15 million (US$337,000).
The P15 million would allegedly be split between Juan, Presidential Assistant for Food Security and Agricultural Modernization Francis Pangilinan, and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II.
Soliman had filed a complaint with the NBI accusing Juan and Galang of the act. He filed his complaint shortly after the NFA and the Department of the Interior and Local Government raided his Bulacan warehouse in July.
The raid revealed that Purefeeds Corporation, owned by Soliman, was mixing rice intended for animal feeds with Thailand rice and passing it off as premium rice.
Juan has denied all allegations, including evidence supposedly in the report that texts of the extortion attempt came from his personal mobile number.
"There are apps in the Internet that allow you to do sim cloning," said Villa-Ignacio.
"You can make it appear that a certain mobile number is calling or texting you when actually it is not. Hopefully, the NBI also looked into this."
The service provider of Juan's mobile number would also have records to prove the text messages came from his sim card. But service provider policies require a court order before they can make such records available.
Media reports also claim the existence of a tape recording of a conversation of Juan attempting to extort from Soliman.
But the voice recording, said his lawyers, could have been easily manipulated to sound like Juan.
"The NBI should do a voice test. [Juan] is willing to have his voice recorded for comparison to the tape recording to verify," said lawyer Arno Sanidad.
Premature, unauthorized release
Villa-Ignacio said the NBI agent who is responsible for the "premature, unauthorized" release of the report may face criminal and administrative charges.
"Premature disclosure is a punishiable act. What's worse is, if it’s a false report meant to discredit the respondents," he told reporters.
The lawyers said they have yet to see the report because Department of Justice regulations prevent them from being given a copy.
They were told by NBI officials they would only see the report once a case is filed with the Office of the Ombudsman and they are summoned to court.
But because parts of the report have been publicized by the media, they have sent a letter to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and the NBI asking if they can now have a copy.
"Mr Juan was shocked. It's difficult to be accused in media and the public, and not be able to defend yourself because you don't know exactly what the basis for accusations are against you," said Sanidad.
But he confirmed that Juan and Galang were aware of an investigation being made. The two submitted affidavits and were questioned by the NBI on September 2.
NBI investigating leak
NBI Director Virgilio Mendez has launched an investigation into who in the agency leaked the report despite strict orders from President Benigno Aquino III to keep it confidential.
Whoever was responsible must want to embarrass the NBI, he said.
"We can only assume that either the person responsible for the leak either wanted to embarrass the NBI or that person just wanted to give information despite repeated instructions from their superiors not to prematurely disclose the report's contents," he said.
Secretary De Lima earlier confirmed she had received a copy of the report which was submitted to her on September 8.
But she has yet to decide on whether the evidence is enough to warrant the filing of charges against Juan and Galang.
"I cannot tell you yet the content of the report until the time it has been released. I just want to be very sure that there is enough basis in their recommendation," she told reporters on September 16.
Employees found guilty of leaks may be suspended or dismissed for insubordination or misconduct, De Lima was reported to have said previously.
Soliman's complaint and the subsequent leak of the investigation may be attacks to discredit Juan and Food Security Secretary Francis Pangilinan, said Villa-Ignacio.
The order from President Aquino to clean up and fix agricultural agencies has made the officials easy targets for criminals behind crimes like hoarding or smuggling of agricultural products, he said.
"There have been cases filed by Secretary Pangilinan against people allegedly involved in these irregularities. Of course, they are hitting back if only to create an impression that officials are only extortionists."
Juan had tendered his resignation to Pangilinan on August 15, shortly after Soliman accused him of extortion. His resignation was rejected by the food security chief.
At the time the controversy first surfaced, Juan had been only two months on the job, having assumed the position vacated by Orlan Calayag on June 23.
Prior to this, Juan was president of Monterey Foods Corporation and then of San Miguel Foods Inc, the food division of San Miguel Corporation.
In a previous statement, Pangilinan said the search committee that recommended Juan for the job vouched for "the integrity of Art Juan. They don't believe that Mr Art Juan is capable of the allegations against him." – Rappler.com
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.