MANILA — (UPDATED) An onion farmer on Tuesday claimed that a so-called "Mrs. Sibuyas" buys onions off the market to justify the importation of the produce.
Israel Reguyal, chairman of the Bonena Multipurpose Cooperative, told the House Committee on Agriculture and Food that is allegedly the "modus" of a certain Lilia Leah Cruz, who had been tagged by her critics as "Mrs. Sibuyas."
"Pag panahon po ng bilihan sa storage ang gagawin po niya, bibilhin niya po ang lahat ng laman nung nasa storage... Pag nabili na po ang lahat ng sibuyas ito na po ang Department of Agriculture (DA), magpapalabas na ng import permit doon po kami patay, kaya nga po ito yung napakabigat sa amin," Reguyal said.
When lawmakers pressed Reguyal to name who Cruz might be in cahoots with in the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), he asked for a closed door executive session with lawmakers.
The panel granted his request and afforded the same to Cruz, who was also present in the hearing Tuesday.
Emerging from the closed door executive session, lawmakers said Cruz maintained her innocence, but remained mum for the most part of the public hearing.
Last week, Cruz already belied allegations that she has been behind the smuggling and hoarding of onions, and rejected the nickname "Mrs. Sibuyas."
Nueva Ecija 3rd District Rep. Rosanna Ria Vergara did not mince words during the public hearing after the executive session, saying she thinks Cruz is "really lying."
"Nakakalungkot lang [dahil] may Sandigan case kayo ngayon 'di ba at 'yung nangyari sa garlic industry noong 2015—ngayon halos wala nang nagtatanim ng garlic. Namatay yung industriya... Katakataka na pag may price spike 'yung pangalan niyo ay parating kasama... I don't want 5 years from now wala na rin tayong onion tapos kayo na naman ang tinatanong," Vergara said.
"You insist na hindi ka sangkot—na you're being maligned but I'm sorry I think you're really lying and I really hope we resolve this. During the executive session, I was hoping you would name names but you still insist that you're the innocent victim," Vergara added.
Cruz remained mum throughout Vergara's statements.
Before this, Reguyal blamed Cruz for his loss of about P30 million for onions back in 2012.
"Siya po ang lumugi sa akin ng napakalaki eh," Reguyal said.
Reguyal claimed Cruz only paid for 15,000 of the 80,000 bags of onions he sold. Reguyal said he had to sell off real estate property to pay the farmers who deposited their onion produce with him.
PARTNERED WITH AN IMPORTER
Marikina 2nd District Rep. Stella Quimbo meanwhile showed ABS-CBN News a copy of Administrative Order No. 07 issued by then Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Pinol in August 25, 2017 which suspended indefinitely the accreditation of garlic importers in an attached list.
In the list, Cruz was described as "Player A" next to 24 affiliated importers, which included VIEVA Philippines Inc. registered under the name "Lilia Cruz."
The list also showed that YOM Trading was used to import garlic which fueled the lawmakers' speculation that Cruz is involved in the importation of both garlic and onion.
"Ang nasa utak naming lahat dito ay parang hindi ka nag-iimport pero ang kasama mo sa iyong kompanya ay nag-iimport. Pagdating sa bawang, 2017 pa lang, na-note na ng DA na ginagamit ninyo ang kanyang pag-angkat ng garlic. Nakakalungkot dahil parang paulit-ulit na lang ang inconsistencies at lies na naririnig namin," Quimbo said.
Cruz also remained silent throughout Quimbo's statements but later admitted that one of her business partners in the Philippine VIEVA Corporation is YOM Trading, which was confirmed by BPI Director Glenn Panganiban as a top importer of onions.
She said YOM Trading is a separate entity and has 7.04-percent shares of Philippine VIEVA.
Quimbo showed ABS-CBN News a screenshot of the general information sheet (GIS) of Philippine VIEVA Group of Companies which revealed other companies that have shares in Philippine VIEVA.
Companies Tian Long Corporation and Golden Shine International Freight Forwarders Corporation are the other entities having shares in Philippine VIEVA.
Responding to Quimbo's questions, Cruz told the panel that Philippine VIEVA used to trade imported goods but that stopped when they were suspended.
"Dahil nga po nung 2017 nagkaroon kami ng suspension kaya po nagfocus kami more on local trading doon sa Phil VIEVA." Cruz said.
Quimbo then noted what she believed is an inconsistency.
"Kapartner po ni Ms. Lilia Cruz sa Philippine VIEVA itong one of the biggest importers of onions pero ang statement po is Phil VIEVA does not engage in importing," Quimbo said.
"Ang sinasabi ninyo 'di kayo importer pero noong tiningnan namin ang GIS ay kasama po dito sa kompaniya niyo ang isa sa pinakamalaking importer ng onion kaya kami po ay nagtataka," Quimbo continued.
Cruz then confirmed that her family has majority control of Philippine VIEVA with her owning 20 percent, her husband owning 28.16 percent, and her niece owning 2.96 percent, totaling to over 50 percent shareholdings.
Sagip Party List Rep. Rodante Marcoleta for his part claimed Cruz had paid off farmers with bouncing checks, which Cruz said had already been settled.
"I invoke my right to remain silent," Cruz replied. She also insisted that she has proof that the bounced checks had already been settled.
When asked why she invoked her right to remain silent, Cruz can only cite that the matter had been from a long time ago.
"Sorry po your honor, that time po kasi matagal na kaya di ko po ma-recall yung naging operation po that time pero settled na po ito," Cruz said.
Reguyal also told lawmakers that as much as P168 million worth of onions were spoiled last year alone while in storage at a warehouse in Marilao, Bulacan.
Reguyal claimed that the onions got spoiled because ice had formed while in storage.
"Ito po ay nag-file na po kami ng kaso sa kanila dahil po ito ay sa aming pagkakaalam ay dahil po sa kapabayaan nila, na-over, nasobrahan po sa lamig nagyelo po yung sibuyas," Reguyal said.
Reguyal told lawmakers they had to throw away the onions because of the spoilage, but they also had to pay storage fees. The onions came from farmers who deposited their onions with him.