Joint panel resumes hearing on sugar mess; solons want stiff penalties vs culprits

The sugar import mess has taken a turn for the worse for resigned officers of the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) and the Department of Agriculture (DA) as lawmakers on Monday, Aug. 22, mulled the possibility of demanding for stiff penalties for those responsible for the foiled attempt to import sugar.

(Photo courtesy of Malacañang)

Both San Jose Del Monte City lone district Rep. Florida Robes and ACT Teachers Party-list Rep. France Castro hinted at possible repercussions despite the resignation of former DA Undersecretary for Operations Leocadio Sebastian and the SRA Board members.

Castro stated during the House hearing on the sugar import mess that resignation may not be an enough consequence for the signing of Sugar Order (SO) No. 4, which would have brought 300,000 metric tons (MTs) of imported sugar into the country.

SO 4, however, was subsequently scrapped as it did not have the approval of President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., chairman of the SRA and agriculture chief in a concurrent capacity.

“We are with the lawyers here, so we will (be) awaiting for the recommendation because the mere fact that the board convened without the chairman, who happens to be the President, and come up with this kind of resolution and signing for on behalf of the president, I think that’s already a question,” Robes, chairperson of the House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability, said during the hearing.

The Robes panel, along with the Quezon 1st district Rep. Wilfrido Mark Enverga-chaired Committee on Agriculture held the joint panel hearing.

“We will be reviewing all of those and kung saan po siya mapupuntang (and to which) constitutional commissions (it will go) then we will all deliver this into the committee and public para transparent po tayo (so we are transparent),” Robes added as Castro asked if the issue could be referred to the Office of the Ombudsman.

The issue stemmed from the President’s rejection of SO 4 and the resignation of Sebastian, who signed the order in lieu of Marcos.

READ: Marcos to deal with agri execs tied to ‘illegal’ sugar importation based on probe results

Since then, SRA Administrator Hermenegildo Serafica and board members have also resigned from their respective posts.

But during the hearing, Sebastian argued that his resignation was out of “delicadeza", and he acted on SO 4 based on a July 15, 2022 memorandum that purportedly gave him the authority to sign contracts for the DA.

He cited two meetings—on Aug. 1 and 4—that included Marcos, Serafrica, Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez, and SRA Board Member Aurelio Gerardo Valderrama wherein they came out with a sugar importation program for transmittal to the President.

“That gave me the inclination or that gave me the feeling that there is an urgency of this matter that we need to act as soon as possible,” Sebastian told the lawmakers, adding that an Aug. 5 memo to Marcos was also sent to inform him that the board will convene to decide on SO 4.

He said he submitted an importation plan to the President. He followed it up, later drafted a memo for the President, and sent it to the Office of the Executive Secretary.

Serafica also sent the same email, but didn’t get an answer.

“Madam chair, that’s why I said I may have misread the intent of the President when I pushed through with deciding on that matter based on the authorization that was given to me last July 15, 2022,” he stressed.

“That’s why when I realized that I have misread the intention of the President when he disapproved it, I immediately gave my resignation out of delicadeza and to spare the President from any other issues that have arose from the Sugar Order No. 4,” he explained.

READ: Palace confirms 2 SRA execs’ resignation amid sugar importation mess

The mess brought about by the foiled attempt to import 300,000 MTs of sugar also sprung from the confusion over the President’s Memorandum Circular No. 1 (MC 1) that declared certain positions vacant effective noon of June 30.

SRA Deputy Administrator Guillermo Tejida III said Serafrica did not consult with the regulation department on SO 4 as was customary.

“In this case, your honor, I was a victim of MC1 when it came out, the three deputies and legal department manager talked among themselves that our term ended June 30, 2022,” Serafrica explained.

The directive led to the designation of then-SRA Deputy Administrator Ignacio Santillana as officer in charge (OIC) of the SRA. Even the SRA website showed Santillana as OIC.

Serafrica admitted to Antipolo 2nd district Rep. Romeo Acop that protocols were not followed in issuing SO 4, which would have been the second sugar import program for the crop year 2021 to 2022.