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Senate minority clears officials in sugar import mess

PHILIPPINE STAR/ MICHAEL VARCAS

A SENATE minority report on Tuesday cleared agriculture officials accused of usurping presidential powers when they ordered 300,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar imports last month amid rising prices and tight supply.

“The 300,000 MT figure mentioned in Sugar Order No. 4 did not come from thin air but is based on facts, historical data and a result of consultation with stakeholders,” according to the report signed by Senators Aquilino Martin D. Pimentel III and Ana Theresia “Risa” N. Hontiveros-Baraquel.

The Senate blue ribbon committee last week recommended criminal and administrative charges against agriculture and sugar officials for serious dishonesty, grave misconduct and insubordination, and gross neglect of duty in connection with the import order that President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. vetoed last month.

But the minority said the majority recommendation to file charges against resigned Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio S. Sebastian, former Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) Head Hermenegildo R. Serafica, and former SRA board members Aurelio Gerardo J. Valderrama, Jr. and Roland B. Beltran lacked factual and legal basis.

“There are badges of good faith on the part of Undersecretary Sebastian, et. al.,” according to the minority report. “This in itself constitutes a valid defense against charges of violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.”

It also blamed Executive Secretary Victor D. Rodriguez for failing to communicate the president’s sugar policy to the sugar agency.

“What transpired was a case of lack of communication and clear directive, or even any advice, from the executive secretary on how the SRA board should proceed to handle the subject matter,” it said. “Their inquiries were met with a deafening silence,” it added, referring to the SRA officials.

“It was the executive secretary’s duty to relay these information and messages to the president for proper and prompt action, given the urgency of the situation,” the minority said. “Undersecretary Sebastian could not be faulted for thinking that by informing the executive secretary, the gatekeeper to the president, it is as if he had also informed the president himself.”

Mr. Rodriguez did not immediately reply to a Viber message seeking comment.

The presidential palace earlier called the import order illegal, noting that the sugar board had been convened without the knowledge of the president, who heads the board as Agriculture secretary.

The minority also cited the need for a separate Agriculture secretary. “We call on the president to appoint a full-time secretary of Agriculture at the soonest possible time to take charge of the department and the agricultural sector and give these his or her utmost attention.”

It also sought changes to the executive order creating the Sugar Regulatory Administration by boosting its independence and expanding its composition to include small farmers, sugar workers and consumers.

“It is important for the government to exert efforts to strengthen the sugar industry’s institutional support mechanisms,” it added.

The Senate minority likewise urged the SRA to resolve internal conflicts and disagreements. “They should keep their eyes on the ball and focus on their mandate and responsibilities.” — Alyssa Nicole O. Tan

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