MANILA (2nd UPDATE) — Outgoing Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Tuesday urged the incoming Marcos administration to reshuffle officials of the Department of Agriculture amid smuggling allegations.
This came after ranking officials of the DA and Bureau of Customs were named as alleged protectors and smugglers of agricultural products, in an intelligence report that was submitted to the Senate.
"Dapat. 'Yun ang pinag-usapan namin nung padating nating pangulo [Ferdinand Marcos Jr.]," Sotto told TeleRadyo when asked about reshuffling the agency.
Marcos, who is set to assume the presidency on June 30, will head the DA in the first part of his administration.
“We’re going to run after them. Hahabulin natin sila,” he told reporters in Cebu where he attended the oath-taking of local officials.
The "validated" list of alleged protectors and smugglers, which is included in the 63-page report of the Senate Committee of the Whole, has been filed in the bills and index.
Among those tagged in the report were Navotas Mayor Toby Tiangco, Agriculture Undersecretary Ariel Cayanan, Bureau of Plant Industry Director George Culaste, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Director Eduardo Gongona, and Customs Commissioner Leonardo Guerrero.
Some P667.5 million worth of vegetables and agri-fishery products were smuggled into the country from 2019 until this year, the report showed.
The report can be used by the incoming Congress to continue the investigation, Sotto said.
"'Yung susunod na hearing ipatawag nila 'yung source, mga intelligence community natin," he said.
Nineteen senators signed the committee report.
In response to the issue, Malacañang said it is one with the Senate "in fighting corruption in the bureaucracy."
"File the necessary charges before the Office of the Ombudsman so officials and persons mentioned in the Senate report could be afforded due process, face their accusers, and have their day in court," acting presidential spokesperson Martin Andanar said in a statement.
The BOC, meanwhile, said it is conducting its own investigation on the smuggling of agricultural products.
"May problema naman talaga sa agricultural smuggling," Customs Assistant Commissioner Jet Maronilla said. "I think the President handling personally ‘yung Department of Agriculture is a big step in stopping this particular problem."
Peasant group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas called for the removal of "smuggling mafia" allegedly conniving with the DA and BOC.
"Hindi na bago ang listahan. Mga lumang pangalan na dati nang nadadawit sa korapsyon sa importasyon at smuggling ang nasa listahan ng Senate Committee of the Whole Report," KMP president Danilo Ramos said.
For farmers group Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura, the government failed to protect the agriculture industry.
"'Till these days, smugglers remain emboldened dahil wala naman napaparusahan sa kanila, including their cohorts in both the DA and the BOC,” Sinag executive director Jayson Cainglet said.
In separate statements, Guerrero, Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service Director Jeoffrey Tacio, and lawyer Yasser Abbas of the BOC's Import and Assessment denied being involved in smuggling.
"The Senate Committee report citing me as one of the government officials involved in agricultural smuggling also contains the numerous accomplishments of BOC in its campaign against agricultural smuggling, and the adoption of the executive recommendations, which I directed," said Guerrero.
Citing measures implemented under his watch, Guerrero said a total of P2.5 billion worth of smuggled agricultural products in various ports nationwide were seized from 2016 to May this year, while a total of 111 criminal cases have been filed before the Department of Justice against unscrupulous stakeholders.
"Moreover, 84 importers and customs brokers involved in agricultural smuggling were revoked of their accreditation since 2019," he said.
Abbas said that as Director of the Import and Assessment Service, he is not involved in the processing, clearance or release of agricultural products.
"The functions of my office does not allow me to influence or facilitate the processing of agricultural products to allow smuggling," he said.
"Furthermore, I was not invited in any hearing in the Senate regarding the smuggling of agricultural products nor was I even given a chance to explain any allegations against me, if any."
The BFAR also refuted the allegation against Gongona.
"Under Director Gongona's leadership, the DA-BFAR has remained committed to the government's endeavor to end corruption by instituting mechanisms and processes that uphold integrity and good governance within the agency," the agency said in a statement.
It said it would answer all allegations and assured the Senate and the public it would participate in any investigation.
"We hope to be given a fair opportunity to prove DA-BFAR's integrity and reach the truth of this matter," the agency said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Nancy Binay rose to Tiangco's defense, saying the inclusion of the local chief executive's name in the report is a result of failed intelligence.
According to Binay, Tiangco has been vocal against smuggling of fishery products in Navotas City.
"Napaka-imposible at no way na maging protector si Mayor Toby," she said.
"I know him personally and I believe his name shouldn't have been in the list in the first place."
Binay said Tiangco's inclusion in the report of National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, which was submitted to the Senate, has no basis.
"We have seen NICA reports culled from fake sources and social media posts being submitted to Senate," she said.
"Ang nakakalungkot, faulty intel can damage and scar innocent people's reputation."
Sen. Joel Villanueva also threw his support behind Tiangco.
From 2016 to 2022, about 103 cases related to agricultural smuggling, with a total value of P1.35 billion smuggled products, have been filed.
The National Prosecution Service has filed agricultural smuggling-related cases only against 4 people, in which one had been dismissed due to lack of evidence.
— With reports from Robert Mano, Lady Vicencio and Sherrie Ann Torres, ABS-CBN News; and Annie Perez