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Palace decision clearing sugar officials must be respected, Agri dep’t says

THE Department of Agriculture (DA) said officials implicated in issuing the unauthorized order to import sugar last year have been cleared after an investigation, and called on the public to respect the Palace decision relieving them of liability.

“The Executive Secretary has approved the decision and we have to respect that; the case went through an investigation. Let’s just respect the decision,” Agriculture Deputy Spokesperson Rex C. Estoperez said in a Laging Handa briefing on Thursday.

The Office of the President (OP) cleared former Agriculture and Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) officials who signed the “illegal” import order for 300,000 metric tons of refined sugar in 2022.

In a 10-page decision signed by Executive Secretary Lucas P. Bersamin, the Office of the President cleared former Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio S. Sebastian, former SRA Administrator Hermenegildo R. Serafica, and former SRA Board Members Roland B. Beltran, and Aurelio Gerardo J. Vaderrama, Jr. of all liability in connection with the issuance of Sugar Order (SO) No. 4.

“From the totality of the evidence, this Office finds that the issuance of SO No. 4 was done in good faith absent any showing that the respondents were aware of their lack of authority. Here the respondents thought they were authorized because of miscommunication,” according to the decision.

In a statement, Mr. Beltran welcomed the decision, saying: “I have always said from the very start that I am innocent of the charges against me. I faithfully performed my duties as a public servant in accordance with my oath of office. I did not betray public trust.”

Separately, Mr. Sebastian said that he was pleased by the dismissal of the case as this will allow everyone to move forward from a “traumatic experience.”

The issue stemmed from a “miscommunication” arising from a memorandum of then Executive Secretary Victor D. Rodriguez designating Mr. Sebastian as Undersecretary for Operations of the Department of Agriculture.

The memorandum issued by Mr. Rodriguez dated July 15, 2022 granted additional authority and functions to Mr. Sebastian including the “signing of contracts, memoranda of agreement, administrative and financial documents necessary to carry out department objectives, policies, functions, plans, programs, and projects, for the efficient and effective operations of the DA.”

SO No. 4 was deemed illegal because it was issued without the consent of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., who is also the Agriculture Secretary and SRA chairman.

In August, Mr. Sebastian defended the order saying that it was necessary to import sugar. He added that he signed the order after meeting with Mr. Marcos.

In a hearing in September, the Senate blue ribbon committee recommended criminal and administrative charges against the four officials.

Senator Francis N. Tolentino, who heads the Senate blue ribbon committee, said on Thursday that the OP decision does not affect the committee’s findings.

“The clearance given by the OP… does not affect the 97-page Senate Blue Ribbon Committee Report which was adopted unanimously by the Upper Chamber, in aid of legislation, and following several full-blown public hearings conducted,” Mr. Tolentino said in a statement.

He cited the separation of powers distinguishing between the functions of the Executive and Legislative branches.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Martin D. Pimentel III said: “We are in agreement. Good that the Office of the President doesn’t mind being on the same side as the Senate minority. Good too that the OP is being ‘really objective’ in this case.” — Ashley Erika O. Jose

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