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House committee cites cold storage facility officials for contempt

The House Agriculture and Food Committee on Monday cited officials and a lawyer of the Nueva Ecija-based Argo cold storage facility for contempt over their refusal to turn over their list of clients who stored red onions in their facility during the spike in red onion prices during the last quarter of 2022.

Among those cited for contempt were Argo President and General Manager Efren Zoleta, Argo representative Patrick John Sevilla who was present during the congressional inquiry, and an unnamed lawyer whom Sevilla refused to name during the proceedings.

"Forty-nine members are present, the two-thirds required is 33. Having 35 votes [in favor] Mr. Efren Zoleta, Jr., Mr. John Sevilla, Mr. Jan Ryan Cruz are cited in contempt," House Agricultural and Food panel Chairperson Mark Enverga of Quezon said.

As a result, Zoleta, Sevilla, and Cruz would be detained in the halls of Congress for at least 10 days as provided under the House rules.

"We have a facility here. We will apply the full force of the rule: 10 days [in detention in Congress]," Enverga said.

Since Zoleta and Cruz were not present during Tuesday's proceedings, the House Sergeant at Arms was ordered to locate them for their subsequent detention.

Sevilla earlier said that they could not submit the names of individuals or businesses who were Argo cold storage clients due to a confidentiality clause provided under Argo’s service agreement with the clients.

Pressed by lawmakers that the subpoena duly covers such records, Sevilla agreed to disclose their clients within an hour.

Sevilla’s subsequent submission, however, included limited information the lawmakers were asking for, prompting the lawmakers to cite the Argo officials for contempt.

“These are just listing of two depositors [of onions in your cold storage] and number of bags deposited. There are no other details. No dates [of bags being deposited], no [dates of] withdrawals,” House Appropriations Committee Senior Vice-chairperson Stella Quimbo said.

“Mr. Chair, this is very different compared with the submission of other cold storage firms WBI and Titan. This is not sufficient in form and substance,” Quimbo added.

Quimbo also noted that the documents submitted by Sevilla contradicted Sevilla’s earlier claim of a confidentiality clause provision.

“I went over the service agreement. There is no clause on confidentiality on business information,” Quimbo said.

Sevilla explained that he was caught off guard by the sudden request and asked for another hour to make another submission.

“Biglaan po kasi pero ibibigay ko po lahat,” Sevilla said.

(I was just surprised but I will make the proper submission.)

Agriculture and Food panel Chairperson Enverga said 30 minutes should be enough, but his colleagues said the time given Sevilla while en route to citing the Argo officials for contempt was sufficient.

After being cited for contempt, Sevilla said that the soft copy of the service agreement bears a watermark stating the confidentiality clause. — DVM, GMA Integrated News