It is good to have a former Supreme Court Chief Justice as Executive Secretary because he could weigh objectively a case that was mishandled and misjudged by a predecessor and further maligned by supposedly honorable members of Congress, particularly the senators. ES Lucas Bersamin was Chief Justice from November 2018 to October 2019.
I am referring to the unceremonious ouster and supreme malignment given to former Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian and three members of the board of the Sugar Regulatory Administration, namely former SRA Administrator Hermenigildo Serafica and members Aurelio Gerardo Valderrama Jr. and Roland Beltran.
They were accused by former ES Atty. Victor Rodriguez of committing illegal acts through the issuance of Sugar Order No. 4 which called for the importation of 300,000 metric tons of the sweetener, that then was too pricey in the market because of an alleged inadequate supply.
After Rodriguez made a big fool of them, the Senate followed suit castigating them and imputing supposed sins they committed and holding trials by publicity, as though they committed treason and high crimes with such order, which later was justified with the import order given by President Marcos initially for 70,000 metric tons and later another over 200,000 metric tons. The president’s import order virtually upheld their assessment of the sugar supply situation.
Yet, after the import order was carried out, not a peep or a statement of apology on the administration’s calculation and the verdict by the senate—misjudging the four people in the past—was heard from both the executive and legislative branches of government. They must have been too embarrassed by their folly of misjudgment to even admit it in public, the same way they handed out their guilty sentence to Sebastian, et al.
To borrow the line of columnist Antonio Contreras, the least they could do is apologize, which I agree, even belatedly. Although the senators could claim to be performing just their oversight functions, as the people’s representatives, Contreras said they had tarnished names and reputations, even if done in good faith. “As servants of the people, and not our masters, we owe them our respect,” he said.
But such apology is repeatedly denied to other people whom they invite as resource persons in their hearings, particularly when in the context of their oversight functions. They do so with impunity simply because they cannot be held legally liable because of their parliamentary immunity.
The Senate blue ribbon committee had accused Sebastian, Valderrama, Serafica and Beltran of corruption when they approved the 300,000 metric tons of sugar, which did not materialize as it was stopped by the President, only to allow later the importation after intense lobbying by industrial users and the uncontrollable price spike of sugar.
Other offenses imputed on them were dishonesty, grave misconduct, gross neglect of duty, conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service and gross insubordination.
But they gave no charges against ES Rodriguez, who started the idea of importing sugar—which the four took seriously and executed in an SRA Order and which he denied involvement for. He also committed usurpation of power (deciding on behalf of the President).
From the outset, there was no anomaly in the transaction, considering that there was an order from the President to prepare a sugar importation plan, and the SRA board was clothed with the legal authority to decide on this issue. Furthermore, Sebastian was bestowed by the Office of the President through then Executive Secretary Victor Rodriguez the authority not only to chair important committees in the Department of Agriculture and act on behalf of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who is the concurrent Agriculture secretary. He was also authorized to sign on behalf of the president, Contreras said.
The SRA Board prepared the import order in good faith, and sent a draft to Rodriguez, which he left unattended and did not even give a response to their follow ups. So, Sebastian and the board presumed that everything was in order, and also no single evidence presented during the committee hearings that supported the claim of serious dishonesty, or that any of the officials personally profited or benefited from the assailed importation order.
This is what the motu proprio investigation ordered by the president and conducted by the office of the deputy executive secretary for legal affairs found. And this is what was upheld by the President, acting through ES Bersamin in an order on Dec. 29, 2022.
In his 10-page resolution, Bersamin ruled that
"... 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 (Sugar Order) Number 4."
Furthermore, Bersamin noted,
"Respondents thought they were authorized because of miscommunication. Apparently, the root cause of the miscommunication is the memorandum from the Office of the Executive Secretary dated 15 July 2022." He pointed out that "SO No. 4 was prepared as 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."
ES Bersamin’s order now frees Sebastian, Serafica, Valderrama and Beltran and their families are now vindicated for such “guilts” and it is the turn for the senate to apologize and be men enough to accept their guilt of misjudgment.
Despite such acquittal, the harm’s been done, they were ordered to resign from their posts and their hard-earned reputation bludgeoned and tarnished. The people were unforgiving in their virulence toward them during the Senate hearings.
With this, the Senate and Congress must be reminded that in their exercise of oversight function, they must do so with much prudence and caution, and with a lot of respect for their invited resource persons.
We already saw how someone took his own life in front of his mother's grave after being shamed in a Senate hearing, Contreras said.
Members of Congress should be reminded that their parliamentary immunity should not be an open license for them to ignore due process, or to use hearsay or the testimony of unnamed sources. They cannot be allowed to use as an excuse their obligation to citizens to ferret out the truth and corruption as their warrant to trample upon people's rights and dignity.
The least that the Senate blue ribbon committee, can do is to collectively issue a public apology to them and their families. The public must also ask if such legislative investigation led to any bills filed to reform the sugar industry.