SRA officials under investigation for ‘illegal, ‘unauthorized’ sugar import resolution

Malacañang has launched an investigation to determine the culpability of officials behind the alleged “illegal” and “unauthorized” signing of a document that greenlighted more sugar imports without the President’s approval, Press Secretary Trixie Cruz Angeles announced on Thursday.

“An investigation is ongoing to determine whether any act that would cause the President to lose trust and confidence in his officials can be found or if there is malice or negligence involved,” she said during a Palace press briefing.

“In such a case, if such findings are made, then the only determination left will be how many heads are going to roll,” she added.

No preventive suspension order has been issued for now against the officials of the Sugar Regulatory Administration who signed the resolution Sugar Order No. 4 — administrator Hermenegildo Serafica, board members Roland Beltran and Aurelio Gerardo Valderrama Jr., and Department of Agriculture (DA) Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian, who affixed his signature above the name of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., concurrent SRA Chairperson and DA Secretary.

“All the signatories of the resolution are currently under investigation. Let us wait if a determination can be made — if a preventive suspension order will be issued while the investigation is ongoing. But if the investigation would be quick, we will see replacements very soon,” said Angeles.

In a statement sent to reporters on Wednesday evening, Angeles denied that the President had approved the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar, which was reflected in Sugar Order No. 4. The resolution was uploaded on the SRA’s official website on Wednesday morning but was removed hours later when Malacañang announced that the President had not approved the importation.

Angeles clarified that “the resolution was issued in the President’s name when it was signed for the President by Usec. Leocadio Sebastian. [But] such signing was not authorized by the President.”

“His assignment as the alternate of the President is merely to be present in those meetings where the President cannot attend. It is not a delegation of authority to call any meetings or to sign any resolutions in the absence of the President’s awareness that such a resolution is to be issued,” Angeles added.

Reiterating that Marcos is the chairperson of the SRA, Angeles stressed that: “As such, the chairman sets the date of any meetings or convening of the SRA and its agenda. No such meeting was authorized by the President, and such a resolution likewise was not authorized.”

Angeles denied that the resolution was only a result of “miscommunication”.

“No. You don’t convene the SRA in the absence of the President and in the absence of such approval on his part. He didn’t approve the convening,” she said.

Appropriate penalties

For now, the President is allowing “due process” to take its course, said Angeles, so that the investigation could find out why the officials opted to “convene” without informing the chief executive and rushed into a decision.

“If their explanations are not satisfactory, then appropriate penalties will be imposed,” said Angeles.

Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez, she emphasized, merely asked the SRA to “create an importation plan” and ascertain how imports would “affect the incoming harvest.”

“Importations are a sensitive matter, particularly with regard to agricultural importations. Sugar is one such importation which we take great care with. It is a balancing act,” said Angeles.

“The importation has to be carefully studied to protect both the consumer against the rising prices of basic commodities while ensuring at the same time that we do not destroy the local industry.”

Angeles also confirmed that Marcos met Sebastian in Malacañang Palace on Wednesday evening and discussed the reported signing of the sugar order.

It was “an opportunity for him to answer all of it informally,” said Angeles. But, “with an investigation, he has to formally answer.”

Photos uploaded on the social media page of the Office of the President on Wednesday night showed that the President had met Sebastian and key officials of the Department of Trade and Industry to “iron out plans to increase the productivity of farmers by ensuring that fertilizers can be made affordable for them.”

‘Madness for imports’

United Sugar Producers Federation (UNIFED) president Manuel Lamata said he would abide by the President’s decision nixing new sugar imports.

Major business groups like the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) and the Philippine Exporters Confederation Inc. (PHILEXPORT) have been urging the Marcos Jr. administration to view the importation of sugar “as a precautionary measure to address the shortage in the supply and the increasing prices of refined sugar and sweetened food and beverage products.”

The groups said that based on the SRA’s report, the cost of refined sugar in Metro Manila is approximately P115 per kilo, which is likely to spike up if the alleged supply shortage is not immediately addressed.

“While we recognize the need to protect our sugar producers and millers, we need to strike a balance and consider expanding our import requirement before the situation worsens, which could lead to higher inflation,” the group said.

The farmer’s group Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG), meanwhile, said that as a sugar shortage looms, it is “high time” for the government to “finally support” the local producers of the sweetener.

“The Sugar Regulatory Administration and the Department of Agriculture should realize that the marching order of the President is to support local production,” SINAG Executive Director Jayson Cainglet said. “Hindi na pwede ‘yung import at first instance tulad ng panahon ni dating Secretary William Dar na nagpahirap sa local agriculture industry.”

The government, Cainglet said, should only import “what is needed” and only “upon the approval of the local industry.”

“The SRB should immediately heed the call of the President and the local industry to stop this madness for imports,” he added.

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