Cabinet officials fail to attend Senate sugar probe

May 8, 2023
Business World |

THE SENATE blue ribbon committee on Monday suspended its probe of what a senator called state-sponsored sugar smuggling after key Cabinet officials failed to attend the hearing.

Agriculture Undersecretary Domingo F. Panganiban, one of those who were absent, would be in Washington, D.C. until May 13 for an “official mission,” Executive Secretary Lucas P. Bersamin told senators.

He added that Trade Secretary Alfredo E. Pascual was in Indonesia for a ministerial level conference before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in June.

Meanwhile, National Economic and Development Authority Secretary Arsenio M. Balisacan would be in Vancouver until May 11.

“All of these three, your honor, would have come here [if their] schedules were different, but… their trips coincided with our meeting today,” Mr. Bersamin said.

Senator Francis N. Tolentino, who heads the committee, said he got a letter from former Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) David John Thaddeus P. Alba, who would be in Australia until June.

Mr. Bersamin said Mr. Alba’s stay in Australia “must have been due to health reasons,” which was also the cause of his resignation from the SRA on April 15.

“The findings of this committee will not be based on speculations but on the merits of the evidence presented,” he said before suspending the hearing.

The government of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. imported more than 400,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar on Feb. 9, way before March 1, the earliest date legally imported sugar could reach Philippine ports, Senator Ana Theresia “Risa” Hontiveros-Baraquel, who sought the investigation, said earlier.

The SRA issued Sugar Order (SO) No. 6 authorizing sugar imports amid supply issues and spiraling prices.

Mr. Panganiban earlier said he had handpicked three importers “due to the urgency of the situation.”

All Asia Countertrade, Inc. was allocated 240,000 MT while Edison Lee Marketing Corp. and S&D Sucden Philippines, Inc. were given allocations of 100,000 MT each.

Maya Santos, a staff of Mr. Panganiban, said in a Viber chat he was “on official business” in the US and was meeting with his counterparts in the US Agriculture department.

Senator Joseph Victor G. Ejercito called the absence of key officials during the Senate hearing “really bothersome.”

“We will not be able to get to the bottom of this fiasco and investigation if all of them aren’t going,” he told reporters after the hearing.

He said he would support the committee if it summons Mr. Panganiban instead. — Beatriz Marie D. Cruz