DA execs face ombudsman probe over sugar, onion fiascoes

Elizabeth Marcelo - The Philippine Star
DA execs face ombudsman probe over sugar, onion fiascoes
A man buys onions at a market in Manila on January 11, 2023.
AFP / Jam Sta Rosa

MANILA, Philippines — Current and former officials of the Department of Agriculture (DA) are in the hot seat as the Office of the Ombudsman investigates both the sugar importation fiasco and the current soaring prices of red and white onions supposedly due to price manipulation by big traders.

In an interview with dzBB yesterday, Ombudsman Samuel Martires said his office launched a motu proprio investigation late last year on the botched massive sugar importation plan.

Martires said the probe will continue even if Malacañang had already cleared former DA and Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) officials in the supposed anomaly.

“The probe of the Palace is different from the probe of the ombudsman. We don’t mind if they were already absolved by Malacañang, that would not affect our ongoing probe,” Martires said in Filipino.

“If we think there is probable cause of filing a complaint against these officials before the Sandiganbayan, if there is a violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, I don’t care what Malacañang says. We will continue to silently conduct our investigation,” Martires added.

The fiasco stemmed from the controversial Sugar Order No. 4, which would have brought in 300,000 metric tons of sugar into the country. The order was issued by the DA, supposedly without the knowledge or approval of President Marcos, who concurrently serves as DA secretary.

In a Senate Blue Ribbon probe, former DA undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian justified signing SO 4 by citing a memo from then executive secretary Vic Rodriguez. Sebastian said Rodriguez’s memo gave him the impression that he had the power to sign an importation order on Marcos’ behalf.

Rodriguez resigned from his post sometime in September at the height of the controversy but opted to stay as Marcos’ chief of staff. He eventually left the Palace the following month.

In a 10-page resolution released just last week, the Office of the President dismissed the administrative case against Sebastian, former SRA head Hermenegildo Serafica and former board members Roland Beltran and Aurelio Gerardo Valderrama Jr. in connection with the sugar importation anomaly.

The OP said there was no bad faith on the part of the four former officials and that the importation order came about merely because of “miscommunication.”

The OP’s resolution was in contrast with the findings of the Senate Blue Ribbon committee, which earlier recommended the filing of graft, smuggling and usurpation of official functions complaints against Sebastian and the three former SRA officials.

Onion price probe

Meanwhile, in the same radio interview, Martires said his office had also launched a separate investigation on the soaring prices of red and white onions in the market.

Martires said graft investigators have already sent letters to the DA as well as the Food Terminal Inc. asking the two agencies to explain the bulk purchase of onions from a sole cooperative in Nueva Ecija.

“We will look into this – if there was collusion, if there was conspiracy between some officials of the Department of Agriculture and private sector,” Martires said in a mix of English and Filipino.

“We will wait for their explanation. Why did they purchase onions from this cooperative? Did it undergo a bidding process? What other cooperatives bidded? If it was negotiated, they have to justify why they resorted to a negotiated contract,” Martires said, adding that they expect the written explanation from DA and FTI within the week.

Martires was apparently referring to the DA and FTI’s purchase of onions worth P537 per kilo from Bonena Multipurpose Cooperative.

Previous news reports said a total of P140 million worth of onions was purchased from Bonena on top of upcoming importation of tons of onions, even if the local harvest season is about to start in March.

“Our investigators wrote a letter to (DA) Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban. We were asking him to explain why we purchased the onions at that price and why we will be importing onions at this period,” Martires said.

The DA has received and welcomed the ombudsman’s order to Undersecretary Panganiban, DA Assistant Secretary and deputy spokesperson Rex Estoperez told reporters yesterday.

“In public service, especially in public expenditure, we have to be transparent. That’s our point and that’s why we are welcoming the order of the ombudsman,” he said.

On the alleged onion shortage and proposal to import onions amid harvest time, Estoperez said the agency can answer those questions directly.

On the purchase of onions from a multipurpose cooperative at P537 per kilo, the DA official said the Food Terminal Inc. must also answer since it was the one that transacted with Bonena. – Danessa Rivera

vuukle comment



  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

Get Updated:

Signup for the News Round now

or sign in with