Senate of the Philippines

Senate ends sugar importation mess probe, committee report out September 8

Ralf Rivas
Senate ends sugar importation mess probe, committee report out September 8

SENATE BLUE RIBBON COMMITTEE. Senator Francis Tolentino, chairperson of the Senate blue ribbon committee, on September 6, 2022, orders the issuance of a subpoena against Executive Sec. Victor Rodriguez following his failure to attend the committee's two consecutive hearings.

Voltaire F. Domingo/Senate PRIB

Here's a rundown of what happened during the final hearing of the Senate blue ribbon committee on the sugar importation mess

MANILA, Philippines – After three hearings, the Senate blue ribbon committee ended its probe into the sugar importation fiasco on Tuesday, September 6, and expects to release its committee report by Thursday, September 8.

“God willing by Thursday, we will have the committee report,” panel chairman Senator Francis Tolentino said at the news briefing of Senate President Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri, after the hearing that finally saw the participation of Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez.

Zubiri, who pushed for the investigation, suggested at the Tuesday hearing that the inquiry be terminated to pave the way for a “quick resolution” of the case and thus give “justice to farmers.”

“Maybe, we can terminate the hearings, come up with a quick resolution of the case, approve it before the break and if these cases are necessary to be filed, let us file them so that they have their day in court. If we feel there is malfeasance, misfeasance, or any violation to the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, let us come up already with the findings and proceed with [the] filing the cases,” he said at the hearing.

Senator Jinggoy Estrada moved to end the hearings, seconded by Senator Ronald dela Rosa.

For Tolentino, the committee “established a lot” during the three hearings centered on the issuance of Sugar Order 4 (SO4) that authorized the importation of some 300,000 metric tons of refined sugar but was rescinded after President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the acting agriculture secretary, said he did not approve it.

“We established a lot. SO4, how it was crafted. The removal of the performance bond. The assignor-assignee relationship,” he said at the news briefing.

During what was to be the final hearing, however, a new detail surfaced: that Marcos had an August 4 online meeting with the Executive Secretary, then-Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) chief Hermenegildo Serafica, and Aurelio Geraldo Valderrama Jr., then-planters’ representative in the Sugar Regulatory Board.

Senate ends sugar importation mess probe, committee report out September 8
600,000 metric tons?

Serafica, who joined the Senate hearing virtually as he had COVID-19, told senators that during that Zoom meeting, Marcos floated the idea of importing 600,000 metric tons of sugar or twice the figure proposed by the SRA.

“Actually in that online meeting with the President, former board member [Aurelio] Valderrama was also in that online meeting, and the President mentioned about a volume of 600,000 metric tons. And I said that Mr. President, that may be too much because starting August 1, first farmers have already accepted cane delivery from farmers and anytime this week, they will start milling,” Serafica said.

Valderrama, who was at the hearing, corroborated Serafica’s statement about the online meeting and the 600,000 MT of sugar mentioned by Marcos.

Senators asked Rodriguez to confirm the online meeting as well as the supposed importation volume mentioned by the President. He replied: “‘Yung 300,000 metric tons nga ay hindi kumbinsido ang Pangulo, bakit niya sasabihing 600,000? (Why would the President say that we need to import 600,000 metric tons of sugar when he himself is not convinced that we need to import 300,000?)

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Rodriguez denied that there was an online meeting. He said that on August 4, Serafica was with him for a meeting in his office, and even cited his notes – he said he kept track of all his day-to-day activities.

Serafica then said that while it’s true and he was in Rodriguez’s office at the time for the meeting, the two of them met with Marcos and Valderrama via Zoom, meaning it was a hybrid meeting.

When Tolentino asked Rodriguez to confirm Serafica’s statement, he said, “Let me check just to be precise.”

When Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III asked the same question, adding that Valderrama, another person at the supposed online meeting already confirmed it, Rodriguez replied, “That is what I will have to check.”

Contempt threat

Zubiri and later, Dela Rosa, threatened Serafica with contempt for allegedly lying about Marcos talking about the importation of 600,000 metric tons of sugar during that online meeting – even after another person in that meeting confimed it.

Zubiri also wondered aloud why the 600,000-MT figure was brought up only at the time, when Marcos was on a “very successful state visit” abroad.

At the press briefing after the hearing, the Senate President suspected that Serafica and Valderrama allegedly raised that figure “maybe to mottle the issue or to throw a monkey wrench away from them.” 

Dela Rosa said one factor that kept him from moving to cite Serafica for contempt was the fact that the former SRA chief was suffering from COVID-19.

Hontiveros said that amid threats to cite Serafica for contempt, the best way to confirm his claims would be to obtain a recording of the online meeting, even if it would only be checked by panel chairman Tolentino due to confidentiality considerations as the President was part of that meeting.

It is the “only way to validate” this, she said.

Hontiveros – and later, Pimentel – also said that even if Marcos had raised the 600,000-MT figure for importation, this was obviously done as part of discussions. It’s not a crime to do “brainstorming on figures,” Pimentel said.

Asked about the August 4 Zoom meeting and the 600,000-MT figure, Tolentino told reporters after the hearing: “It will be given to me. Again, I mentioned the legality of that. ‘Yung transcript na lang as (Just the transcript) requested by Senator Hontiveros. But it doesn’t affect, it will not affect the results [of the investigation].”

‘Purposely’ non-responsive

Rodriguez’s attendance at the hearing was crucial for the senators, as those involved in the botched sugar importation order had said that they got signals from him and the President, leading them to believe that Malacanang backed SO4

Rodriguez and Malacañang went on to deny this, leading to an overhaul of the Sugar Regulatory Administration’s (SRA) ranks.

Under the impression that a memorandum issued by Rodriguez authorized him, Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian signed SO4. Sebastian was designated by Marcos to sit in the Sugar Regulatory Board through a memo signed by Rodriguez last July 15.

But during the hearing on Tuesday, Rodriguez denied that he sent any “signal” to Sebastian.

“I definitely deny that there was a signal coming from my end or that I have given the go ahead to pass Sugar Order No. 4 calling for the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said he did not respond to the follow-up made by Sebastian regarding the import order on purpose, as Marcos was awaiting the plan from sugar officials.

Sebastian is currently on preventive suspension after the importation mess. He had said in previous hearings that he acted on SO4 based on the urgency of the sugar importation issue, and on “signals” he received from Malacañang.

Is the shortage artificial?

During the hearing, Dela Rosa also quizzed officials of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) whether there have been any cases filed after officials conducted several “raids” on several sugar facilities.

DTI said that no cases have been filed, adding that agriculture officials should be the ones to file cases.

“Based on the Price Act, the Department of Agriculture has jurisdiction over sugar. However, the DTI has a ‘no wrong door’ policy…. If the consumer does not know where to go, we are welcoming the consumer to lodge the complaint with the DTI and then the DTI will assist the consumer on where to lodge the complaint,” said Marcus Valdez of DTI’s consumer protection group.

The said “raids” have been questioned by sugar stakeholders. 

For instance, the SRA and Bureau of Customs went to warehouses in Bukidnon on suspicion that firms were hoarding sugar. These officials were accompanied by members of the press.

Without citing any violation, sacks of sugar in the warehouses were left untouched. But inspectors already gave companies bad publicity.

‘How are we lawyering for ES?’

In the press conference after the hearing, Zubiri took exception to the observations of some netizens that some senators seemingly “lawyered” for Rodriguez during the hearings. Last week, before the probe was terminated, Zubiri had already cleared the executive secretary of any involvement in the illegal sugar order.

“How are we lawyering for the ES? He’s been subpoenaed so I had to request as a co-equal branch of government, the executive, that he appear to avoid any crisis. And he appeared. That not lawyering, that’s just the rules,” Zubiri said.

He also said that he just wanted to keep politics out of the Senate probe into the sugar fiasco.

“It’s just that we want to know the truth and I don’t want it politicized. You know, many want to see the President fail. He’s just new; it hasn’t even been 100 days. So some people are trying to politicize this issue and twist it. I think the facts are clear, wait on Thursday on the findings of the committee. But we don’t want to politicize this issue because there’s no politics here involved,” Zubiri said in a mix of English and Filipino. – Rappler.com

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Ralf Rivas

A sociologist by heart, a journalist by profession. Ralf is Rappler's business reporter, covering macroeconomy, government finance, companies, and agriculture.