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OP clears ex-DA, SRA execs in Sugar Order No. 4 mess

The Office of the President (OP) has cleared former Agriculture and Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) officials in connection with the supposed illegal issuance of Sugar Order Number 4.

The order would have allowed the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar without President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.'s approval.

In a 10-page decision dated December 29, 2022, the OP said the following are absolved of liabilities since the issuance of SO 4 was "done in good faith":

  • former Agriculture undersecretary Leocadio S. Sebastian,
  • former SRA administrator Hermenegildo Serafica,
  • former SRA board member Roland Beltran, and
  • former SRA board member Aurelio Gerardo Valderrama, Jr.

"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," the decision read.

"Here, respondents thought they were authorized because of miscommunication," it added.

The four were charged with grave misconduct, gross dishonesty and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service in connection with Sugar Order No. 4.

According to the OP, the miscommunication stemmed from the July 15, 2022 memorandum of then-Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez that allowed Sebastian to sit as ex-officio chairman of the Sugar Regulatory Board.

The same July 15, 2022 memo also allowed Sebastian to sign contracts and other documents necessary to carry out department objectives, policies, functions, plans, programs, and projects, for the efficient and effective operations of the Department of Agriculture.

"In the instant case, 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 therefore, respondents could have assumed its approval," the OP said in its decision.

"In this case, there exists no clear and convincing evidence to suggest that the respondents committed any misconduct. Notably, there is no showing that respondents issued the subject order in order to materially benefit therefrom, and the surrounding circumstances extant absolve the respondents of any misconduct," it added.

The OP also said the officials did not commit dishonesty because the the intent to deceive or misrepresent is absent.

'Traumatic, challenging experience'

In a statement, Sebastian welcomed the dismissal of charges against him and other officials of the SRA.

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

"I thank President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., Executive Secretary Lucas P. Bersamin, and Deputy Executive Secretary for Legal Affairs Analiza G. Logan for their understanding in absolving us of the charges. I take note of their admonition to be more prudent and circumspect in future actions," the former DA official said.

Former SRA board member Beltran, likewise, cheered the OP decision.

"Nagwagi ang katotohanan! (The truth prevailed!) 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," Beltran said.

"I thank my family for storming heaven in prayers and their unwavering support knowing that I never blemished the good name left by our parents," he said. 

'Done in good faith'

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III welcomed the  OP's decision, saying such was consistent with the minority bloc's assertion that the actions of the former DA and SRA officials on SO 4 were done in good faith.

"We are in agreement. Good that the OP doesn’t mind being on the same side as the [S]enate minority. Good too that the OP is being 'really objective' in this case," he said in a text message.

"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.

Earlier, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee recommended charges before the Office of the Ombudsman against Sebastian, Serafica, Beltran and Valderrama.

The report said "preliminary evidence on record" indicated that the four — all signatories to SO 4 — committed administrative offenses of serious dishonesty, grave misconduct, gross neglect of duty, conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service, and gross insubordination.

The criminal charges, the committee report said, involve graft and corruption, agricultural smuggling, and usurpation of official functions.

However, the Senate minority bloc opposed these recommendations in a separate report, saying it lacks "factual and legal basis."

The minority's findings and recommendations were considered as an annex of the Senate Blue Ribbon committee report, which was adopted in the plenary last November. 

Senate Blue Ribbon Committee chairman Francis Tolentino said the OP's decision would not affect the panel's report.

"The clearance given by the OP [Undersecretary] for Legal Affairs 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," he said in a text message.

"An internal motu proprio administrative investigation report made by a separate branch of the Government is different from a Blue Ribbon Committee Report -made pursuant to the rules of a co-equal branch of the [g]overnment," he added. 

He cited a 2008 Supreme Court ruling on the case of People v. Paredes, which stated that the "dismissal of an administrative case does not necessarily bar (prevent) the filing of a criminal prosecution for the same or similar acts that were the subject of the administrative complaint."

"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," he said.

Senator JV Ejercito, one of the senators who voted for the adoption of the committee report, said someone must be held accountable for the reported illegal issuance of SO 4.

"We will see na lang how it goes ako talaga ang concern ko sana talaga may makasuhan talaga. Hindi lang government officials, but I am more concerned with those big-time smugglers kasi sila talagang papatay sa local agriculture industry," Ejercito said in an interview with reporters. — with Ted Cordero and Hana Bordey/KBK/RSJ/VBL, GMA Integrated News