Sugar executives, resource people said: Attend the House hearing if you can get to your office

MANILA, Philippines – Officials from the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) and other contacts involved in the problem of botched sugar importation have been reprimanded by the House panel for not physically attending its briefing despite the possibility of videoconferencing in their respective offices.

At the joint briefing conducted by the House of Representatives Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability and the Agriculture and Food Committee on Monday, Cavite 4th District Representative Elpidio Barzaga, asked why resource persons are allowed to attend the hearing remotely while former lawmakers like him are physically joining meetings despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barzaga said this after several resource persons, especially those from the SRA, were not heard properly due to technical and connectivity issues.

“Madam President, I would like to make this comment. Well, actually, when it comes to members of Congress, we have the rules that we can attend the Congress briefing personally or even through Zoom. However, I have noticed that our resource people like Engineer Hermenegildo Serafica are actually running for office,” Barzaga told Public Accountability Chairman Rep. Florida Robes.

“I take reports for the office versus reports for Congress; reporting to Congress is far more important given that we have our duty to assist legislation in accordance with the constitution. And therefore, I would propose that all Contacts be invited to personally appear at our hearing next Thursday, unless they can present medical evidence for medical reasons that they cannot leave their homes,” he added.

Robes acknowledged Barzaga’s motion, warning people who may not attend Thursday’s hearing – which will already turn into a motu proprio inquiry – that they could be cited for contempt.

“The motion is accepted and passed so I hope everyone heard it clearly so I’m going to say I’m sure Huwebes kayo po is nandito, personally. I even asked our ComSec to ask everyone to come here personally with an RT-PCR (test), please, because we here in Congress do daily antigens,” Robes said.

“So again, to all of our resource speakers, especially on Thursday, please respect the rules and of course as requested by this body, otherwise everyone will be [held] in contempt,” she added.

The representative of the Abono party list, Robert Raymund Estrella, meanwhile asked that all resource persons be invited to bring with them documents relating to the importation of sugar, as well as other files that may be relevant to explain the state of the country’s sugar industry.

“Madam President, may I also ask since they come here just to make sure that na dala naman nila lahat ng papeles nila, ‘pag may hiningi po tayong data, hard copies, and also send to the secretariat so that when we let’s ask about them, they can’t say ‘I didn’t bring it, I’m sorry, I don’t have it here,’” he said.

“So it doesn’t make sense to have a reunion. So please get ready,” he added.

Currently, the two committees are holding a briefing on the issue, after Chairman Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. himself rejected the proposal to import an additional 300,000 metric tons of sugar. House panels are calling the meeting only a briefing and not an inquiry, because before Monday lawmakers had no official decision to convene a hearing on the matter.

Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles says Marcos Jr., who simultaneously heads the Department of Agriculture (DA) in the absence of a secretary, dismissed him as head of the board of the SRA.

The president’s decision came after the release of Sugar Ordinance No. 4, which was signed in his name supposedly without his knowledge. At present, the Under Secretary for Agriculture Operations, Leocadio Sebastian, and other DA and SRA officials who signed it are under investigation.

Marcos Jr. in a vlog on Sunday evening admitted that it may be necessary to import sugar from other countries if supplies run out – due to falling production as major sugar-producing provinces like both provinces of Negros were hit by Typhoon Odette in late 2022.

However, the Chief Executive noted that what needs to be imported would definitely be less than 300,000 metric tons, and that would be around October.

by Marcos Jr. the move was welcomed by several sugar organizations who think that local producers would be disadvantaged by importing, as sugar prices would surely drop with the increase in supply – forcing local farmers to compete and possibly lower selling prices as well.

In addition, groups noted that five mills in Negros Occidental have already resumed operations, which could ensure supply in the coming months.

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Rachel J. Bradford