Ex-DA, SRA officials absolved from sugar import mess

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 5) — The Office of the President (OP) has dismissed the administrative complaint against the four signatories of the controversial order to import 300,000 metric tons of sugar back in August 2022.

In the 10-page decision forwarded to the media on Thursday, OP absolved suspended Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian, resigned Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) chief Hermenegildo Serafica, and former SRA board members Roland Beltran and Aurelio Gerardo Valderrama Jr. of liabilities regarding their approval of Sugar Order No. 4.

The order was earlier described by Malacañang as "illegal" and disowned by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. who sits as SRA board chairman and Agriculture secretary.

The resolution approved by Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin on Dec. 29 stemmed from the grave misconduct, gross/serious dishonesty and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service charges filed against the four officials who resigned due to the controversy.

RELATED: Sugar regulatory officials probed for signing importation order

The OP found that the issuance of the order was done in "good faith absent any showing that the respondents were aware of their lack of authority."

It pointed to miscommunication as the root of the problem brought by a memorandum order issued by then-Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez, which stated they can sign contracts and administrative issuances. It even said that the several emails sent by Sebastian to Rodriguez to follow up on the order belie insinuation there was a united effort to hide it.

"SO No. 4 was prepared pursuant to a directive by the President to come up with an importation plan, the draft of which was sent to then ES Rodriguez. Having raised no objection therefor, respondents could have assumed its approval," the ruling read.

RELATED: Rodriguez explains role in sugar importation mess, ignored Order No. 4

The OP said there is no clear and convincing evidence to suggest that the respondents committed any misconduct or dishonesty.

"The intent to deceive or misrepresent is absent sans any proof that respondents concealed the issuance of the subject order to the President. On the contrary, the attendant circumstances indicate respondents' intention to apprise the President as to the preparation of and approval of SO. No. 4," the document said.

READ MORE: Hontiveros on sugar fiasco: The buck stops at Rodriguez's desk

The OP, however, reminded officials to be more prudent and circumspect in future actions.

The respondents welcomed the OP's decision to drop the charges.

"The resolution of the administrative charges against us will enable us to move forward from a traumatic and challenging experience," Sebastian said.

"Vindicated!!! At the end of the day, truth prevailed," Beltran, who represented sugar millers in the board, wrote on social media.

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture (DA) said they respected the decision and said they would discuss the possibility of Sebastian returning to the agency.

"'Yan ang pinag-usapan namin sa DA kung anong position or anong sitwasyon kung sakaling babalik," DA Assistant Secretary Rex Estoperez said at the Laging Handa briefing on Thursday.

[Translation: That is what we're discussing at the DA — what his position or what the situation would be should he return.]

Estoperez added it would be best for Sebastian to seek an audience with the OP to see what could be done.

At the Senate, Blue Ribbon Committee chairman Francis Tolentino is not bothered by the development.

In a statement on Thursday, Tolentino said the OP's "internal motu proprio administrative investigation report" does not affect the 97-page committee report, which recommended charges against the officials involved.

"The internal OP investigation, the Senate investigation, and any Ombudsman investigation are entirely independent proceedings. Neither would the result in any, terminate or conclude the other(s) and criminal liability is only totally extinguished under Article 89 of the Revised Penal Code, which does not include dismissal of an administrative case," Tolentino pointed out.

In a media interview, Senator JV Ejercito said he's hoping cases will still be filed over the sugar importation mess. "We'll see how the Ombudsman would act on it," he added.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III, meanwhile, said it's a sign of the OP's objectivity, noting that its decision is in agreement with the separate report filed by the Senate minority.

"Good that the OP doesn't mind being on the same side as the Senate minority," Pimentel said.

"I am glad for the four affected personalities. This development will at least give them and their families a chance to repair their image and reputation," he added.