Delegated authority vs judgment call

Does a designated official, who is not an actual presidential appointee, have the power to sign important documents on behalf of a department secretary? This was the question posed to me by Daily Tribune colleague Jom Garner regarding the controversial sugar importation resolution issued by the Sugar Regulatory Administration and signed by erstwhile Department of Agriculture undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian. As public knowledge, President Marcos Jr. concurrently heads the Agriculture department.

My answer is yes. Based on a memorandum from the Executive Secretary dated 15 July 2022, Mr. Sebastian was designated as undersecretary for operations with additional authorities and functions.
The beleaguered official was authorized to exercise specific functions, to wit:

Sign contracts, Memoranda of Agreement, administrative issuances, instruments, and administrative and financial documents necessary to carry out department objectives, policies, functions, plans, programs, and projects, for the efficient and effective operations of the DA, including those enumerated in DA General Memorandum Order 3 (s. 2016), as amended by DA GMO 1 (s. 2018),
Sit as ex-officio chairman or member of all duly-constituted committees, councils, boards, and bodies where the DA secretary is a member or designate other DA officials to the same…

This “delegated authority” from the Executive Secretary allowed Mr. Sebastian to exercise the power to approve and sign documents even if he was not the sitting DA secretary.

And in view of a sugar crisis as an extenuating circumstance, should we consider Mr. Sebastian’s judgment as correct, sound, and prudent? I don’t think, so.

Bittersweet tenure

Let me clarify that I personally know undersecretary Sebastian, who already resigned from the post. An agriculture expert who holds a doctorate degree from Cornell University, he also served as an official during the term of secretary William Dar. Further, he was the youngest executive director of the Philippine Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, Laguna. He is also a Career Executive Service Office (CESO I), which means he has security of tenure and his civil service appointment is not co-terminus with any appointing authority.

Recently, I brought to his attention an anomalous bidding transaction within his turf. The technical specifications were tailor-made for a specific supplier. Thankfully, Mr. Sebastian acted with dispatch and declared a failure of bidding. I could have gone directly to PBBM’s office, but I told him that I believe in his capacity and integrity to resolve the issue. This case shows that he does not condone corrupt practices in the department.

I can say that Mr. Sebastian is an outstanding scientist and technocrat. But he may lack the political savviness and circumspection to ultimately decide on particular issues that have wide-ranging impacts on the people’s interests.

I question his decision to sign Sugar Order 4, which ordered the importation of 300,000 metric tons, or about six million bags of sugar. The timing alone is highly suspect. The stipulated volume is a head-scratcher. Why should we import sugar during the harvest season in the Philippines? The resolution is inimical to the interest of our sugarcane farmers and local industry players.

I commend the President for immediately revoking the contentious sugar resolution.

Sugar shortage

I am aware that the country faces a sugar crisis. The market price for sugar has already reached P100 per kilo. I have some knowledge about the local industry since my family roots come from sugar-producing provinces in the Visayas. Moreover, my best friend/business partner is among the country’s top sugar traders.

Of course, we are vehemently against the mass importation of sugar, especially now that it is harvest time, because it would destroy the livelihoods of our farmers. Next month would be the start of the milling season. Why would the SRA schedule the importation of six million bags of sugar at this time?

Flooding the market with cheaper imported sugar would definitely ‘kill’ their income opportunities. Since sugarcane farming is seasonal, the situation might further lead them to impoverishment.

What the SRA should do is impose a tariff on sugar imports. For instance, if the local production cost amounts to P100 per bag and the cost of importation amounts to P40 per bag, the difference of P60 should come in the form of an import tariff. This would make locally-produced sugar more competitive and less disadvantaged. Let me be clear that I am not against importation per se. But it must be rationalized and should be dependent on the law of supply and demand.

In my opinion, the former undersecretary did not violate any law because his decision was in accordance with delegated authority. As an alter ego of the President, however, he should have directly consulted with PBBM for the latter’s input. He should have cleared the resolution with the President before signing the SRA resolution.

This incident should serve as a lesson to government officials: Get the tacit approval of department heads or top government officials first before making a decision on their behalf.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *