Former Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) chief Hermenegildo Serafica Tuesday claimed that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. raised the idea of importing 600,000 metric tons of sugar.
Marcos Jr. sounded off the idea during their second meeting August 4, Serafica said at the continuation of the Senate’s investigation on the sugar importation mess.
During the Zoom meeting, Serafica said he dissuaded the President from pursuing the plan.
“I said that Mr. President, that may be too much because starting August 1, first farmers have already accepted cane delivery from farmers and anytime this week, they will start milling and former board member Valderrama can confirm this your honor… With due respect to the President, Your honor that was really said and former board member (Aurelio) Valderrama can attest to that Your honor,” Serafica said.
Valderrama, who attended the hearing virtually, affirmed Serafica’s story.
“Yes, this was discussed in our Zoom meeting together with the President and he mentioned the 600,000 but former Administrator Serafica said that it might be too much because the milling season is about to open,” Valderrama told the committee.
“Sinabi nyo kina Presidente, 600,000 might be too much precisely because the milling season has already started,” Senator Risa Hontiveros asked.
“It was Mr. Serafica who said that not me but I was listening to the conversation… and the president said 600,000 and Mr. Serafica said that might be too much Mr. President because the milling season has already started,” Valderrama added.
Serafica’s account, however, irked Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri.
“I don’t believe the President had said that. Impossible. The President will not come up with a figure at the top of his mind. You better clarify Mr. Serafica because you are being close to being cited for contempt,” Zubiri said.
"Wala pong katotohanan na nanggaling kay Pangulong Marcos yung 600,000 metric tons... kung yung 300,000 metric tons nga ho ay hindi kumbinsido ang Pangulo, bakit naman niya sasabihing 600,000 metric tons," Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez said.
Asked by Senate Minority Leader Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III if there was indeed a hybrid meeting with the President last August 4, Rodriguez said that he will still have to verify it first before commenting.
Hontiveros later moved to subpoena the President's recorded Zoom meeting with Serafica's group, but this was immediately turned down by panel chairman, Senator Francis Tolentino, citing the legal implications that they would face if they will pursue that.
Rodriguez's testimony before the committee meantime, was borne out by the move of Senate Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros to subpoena him, for snubbing again the blue ribbon panel's invitation.
This, is for him to answer questions regarding Sugar Order Number 4, which recommends the importation of 300,000 metric tone of sugar.
Rodriguez instead sent a letter which was read to panel members by committee secretary, Atty. Rudy Quimbo.
"However, in recognition of the mandate of the Senate and my intention to extent all possible and necessary assistance to its members to shed light on the matter, I would like to reiterate that the undersigned is willing to answer written inquiries directly related to sugar order number 4," the letter read by Quimbo, stated.
This was followed by Hontiveros's motion, which was seconded by Senate Minority Leader Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III.
“What's the big drama. Hindi ko talaga maintindihan Mr Chairman,” Pimentel said.
The 17-man committee, in executive session quickly held a secret voting, resulting to 11 senators favoring the subpoena, 3 opposing the motion and 3 who opted to abstain.
But before the subpoena could be served to him by the Senate, Rodriguez was already in Zubiri's office.
The Senate President also accompanied Rodriguez to the hearing.
“I would like to sincerely apologize if we have to resort to the issuance of a subpoena to compel my presence today. I have no intention whatsoever to disrespect the honorable members of the Senate," Rodriguez told the panel.
Zubiri said the President called him up about this matter.
“I would like to thank the ES for accepting my invitation today. And to put on record, the President called me earlier this morning… to show sign of respect also to the blue ribbon committee. I appreciate the call of the President and ES," Zubiri said.
Rodriguez also reiterated that he never gave any "signal" to Serafica and suspended Agriculture official Leocadio Sebastian to approve SO-4.
Rodriguez added that the 300,000 metric tons of sugar idea actually came from the two officials.
In previous hearings, both Sebastian and Serafica said the sugar volume stated in SO-4 came from industry's stakeholders, which was also confirmed by the Philippine Sugar Millers Association Incorporated.
Pimentel, meanwhile, blamed the sugar importation controversy, to Rodriguez's refusal to reply to Sebastian's text messages, inquiring about the status of their submitted sugar import plan to the President.
“Why do you purposely not respond Mr. ES. you could have responded that we have not yet made the decision on that Usec. Kasi ang nangyari nag-assume,” Pimentel said.
"Kaya po kami hindi sumasagot dahil mayroon pa nga hong nakabinbin na action ng action ng secretary na si Pangulong Marcos,” Rodriguez explained.
While the head of the United Sugar Producers Federation insisted that there was sugar shortage, data given by SRA to the committee states otherwise.
Asked by Tolentino is sugar supply in the country is really insufficient now, SRA Deputy Administrator Guillermo Tejida III answered in the affirmative.
"As per our records your honor, the inventory this year is not the same as last year. We have a lesser number of inventory... there might be tightness in supply... as our projection would state your honor,” Tejida said.
The committee no longer pursued its threat to cite the COVID-stricken Serafica for contempt.
Sebastian meantime cannot be fired being a career official, Rodriguez said.
Committee chairman Tolentino has promised to release a committee report regarding its SO-4 probe on Thursday.