MANILA — Former Department of Agriculture (DA) Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian on Tuesday defended his signing of Sugar Order (S.O.) No. 4, a document approving the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar on behalf of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., who later labelled the act "illegal."
Sebastian was made to explain his controversial action before the Senate Blue Ribbon committee, which sought an investigation into the fiasco.
"I based it on the authority given to me, in good faith, by that memo on July 15, 2022 by the ES (Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez) as authorized by the President," Sebastian told the panel.
The said memo appointed Sebastian as DA undersecretary-designate with authority to "sign contracts, memoranda of agreement, administrative issuances, and administrative and financial documents."
"So if you can imagine, given the authority under the memo, if I don't act I could be reprimanded, but if I also ask, that's also a risk. So I decided [to sign the order]," Sebastian said.
According to Sebastian, there has been "diminishing supply of domestic sugar" as early as July and the private sector and other industry players were "unanimous" in the need to import more sugar.
"The private sector was also pushing for more supply of sugar... Millers, refiners, planters and all were unanimous that we go into 300,000 MT importation, these are all documented, the S.O. was not decided in one day, it went through consultation, we based it on data," Sebastian explained.
The order, signed Aug. 10, aimed to address the country's limited sugar supply and its soaring prices, with the signatories noting that the raw sugar balance will be less than 35,231 MT by the end of the month.
Rodriguez, who was in the same hearing, admitted that Sebastian texted him twice, on Aug. 7 and 8, inquiring about Marcos' instruction on the planned importation of sugar.
Rodriguez said he ignored Sebastian because Marcos has yet to decide on the matter.
Two days later, Rodriguez said he was surprised that SRA uploaded in its website the document approving the supposed importation of sugar.
"On Aug. 10, Wednesday, we learned that the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) through Sebastian passed a resolution approving S.O. No. 4.... no knowledge of the acting secretary (Marcos), without even convening the SRA board," Rodriguez said.
"I confronted Leo Sebastian and asked why he did such thing behind the President's back… in an unfair and dishonorable way," he added.
Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri and Sen. Raffy Tulfo said Sebastian might have been "influenced" to authorize the importation.
Zubiri and Tulfo said they cannot believe that Sebastian, a decorated scientist with a PhD from Cornell University, would do such act.
"Sino po talaga ang umudyok sa'yo na kailangan nating mag-import?" Zubiri asked.
"You're trying to cover up something here. It's about time to confess," said Tulfo.
But Sebastian said he "was acting in good faith and because of the urgency of the matter."
"Data is very important to me in making the decisions... We also did data analysis in the DA, it convinced me that there is really a big problem in the supply of sugar," Sebastian said.
But Zubiri was unconvinced, citing reports from "insiders" that the sugar supply was sufficient.
"The data is very clear... There is a balance of 126,000 metric tons of sugar as of Aug. 12 that haven't been released yet so what shortage are we talking about," he said.
Zubiri also presented photos of warehouses raided for alleged sugar hoarding.
"Parang dagat ng asukal, they have sugar hidden in there… Is that being hoarded for price manipulation?" Zubiri said.
But Sebastian explained that the remaining supply is still not enough to keep up with the consumption.
"Our monthly consumption is 170,000 metric tons and 85,000 metric tons per month for refined sugar, so the 123,000 [supply] can last how many days?" he said.
"If you see those data, it is very compelling," Sebastian said.
According to Sen. Risa Hontiveros, the fiasco suggests that the DA should be now be headed by a competent leader.
"This only drives home the point na kailanagan na natin ng maayos na liderato sa DA... Nobody is helped by disorganized leadership... This is the fallout of a messy haphazard bureaucracy," she said.