Rot and rats at the NFA

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

From day one of his administration, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. (PBBM) held in concurrent capacity the Department of Agriculture (DA) to directly handle the country’s food security concerns with utmost urgency. During that period, the country has been reeling from high prices of rice and other basic food products.

PBBM immediately buckled down to address the most immediate bottlenecks in the value chain and logistics issues that have been hobbling the country’s agriculture. This was until he relinquished this Cabinet post in November last year. Apparently believing he has done so much already to improve the DA bureaucratic machinery, he relinquished this Cabinet post and appointed fishing magnate Francisco Tiu-Laurel Jr. to become his permanent Agriculture Secretary.

Barely five months into office of Tiu, a partylist lawmaker now wants PBBM to take over again, specifically the management of the National Food Authority (NFA) following the reported illegal sale of rice buffer stocks to private sector traders. Agri partylist Rep. Wilbert Lee echoed this urgent call to PBBM at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum held last Wednesday.

In impassioned appeal, the lawmaker whose party list represents the agriculture sector asked PBBM that it is about time for the Chief Executive to personally lead NFA. The NFA, a government-owned and -managed corporation, is attached to the DA. Although headed by an Administrator, its policy-making body is run by the NFA Council chaired by the Agriculture Secretary.

The NFA Council appointed last Monday the director of the Bureau of Plant Industry, Larry Lacson, to concurrently serve as officer-in-charge (OIC) of NFA and to restore its normal operations at the soonest possible time.

The neophyte lawmaker though was unconvinced and insisted the President must take a direct hand to immediately restore the operations of the NFA. Only the President, he believes can resolve the reported continuing shenanigans at the NFA that resulted to padlocking of rice warehouses all over the country.

“Investigation on NFA should not be delayed. It is very obvious that there are high-ranking officials there who should be removed from office. They are involved in corruption and are neglecting their jobs, leading to this anomaly and it’s the farmers who are suffering,” Rep. Lee deplored.

Lee’s call came after the Ombudsman on March 4 suspended 141 NFA officials and employees, led by administrator Roderico Bioco, assistant administrator for operations John Robert Hermano and other NFA officials and employees who are facing administrative charges of grave misconduct, gross neglect of duty and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service. A week after, the Ombudsman also suspended newly appointed OIC at NFA, deputy administrator Piolito Santos and acting department manager for operation and coordination Jonathan Yazon who were added as respondents in the administrative charges.

The Agri party list solon also pushed for legal actions to unmask the unscrupulous rice traders and be similarly held liable and correspondingly punished. During a hearing of the House Committee on Agriculture and Food, Lee rued, it turned out that the sold 75,000 bags of rice stocks were still of good quality. The agency is only allowed to dispose of stocks through public auction before their quality deteriorates or become unsafe for consumption.

Lee noted that it was also revealed at the same public hearing that the rice buffer stocks were sold to private traders for P25 per kilogram when it can be sold in the market for as much as P70 per kilogram. “The President should really take over in the efforts to cleanse the NFA so that the trust of the public will return,” the Agriparty list representative exhorted PBBM.

At the same news forum at Kapihan sa Manila Bay, DA assistant secretary and official spokesman Arnel de Mesa assuaged the lawmaker that Tiu-Laurel has already ordered an internal investigation into these questioned sale of rice stocks. De Mesa cited that this is on top of the motu propio investigation on the suspended NFA officials and employees based on the DA list submitted to the Office of Ombudsman Samuel Martires.

De Mesa noted with optimism the Ombudsman lifting of preventive suspension for 24 of them, who included 23 warehouse supervisors in the National Capital Region (NCR), regions 2 and 6 as well the acting Batangas NFA Branch Manager Harold Cuartero.

“The Secretary wants that the NFA will be back to normal operation as soon as possible,” De Mesa stressed.

According to De Mesa, the NFA has a total of 288 NFA warehouses nationwide where 99 of these were padlocked amid the suspension of 99 supervisors. However, after the Ombudsman subsequently lifted the suspension of 20 warehouse supervisors, or “bodegeros,” they went back to their respective posts and reopened their respective NFA warehouses.

“At present, there are 169 warehouses that are not affected,” De Mesa assuaged the public. “The Secretary was hoping that more (NFA employees) will be covered by the lifting of the suspension. It is very difficult for the employees of NFA, especially the rank and file, to be slapped with a six months suspension without pay,” De Mesa pointed out.

Lawyer Dino de Leon who represents 108 of the NFA suspended officials and employees denounced the mass suspension of his clients, saying it was done on “shotgun” basis and without due process. According to De Leon, he took their case on pro bono basis precisely after the Ombudsman immediately declared his clients practically guilty already due to supposed probable cause to justify the hasty imposition of the preventive suspension.

However, De Leon complained the Ombudsman has yet to give them a list of suspended NFA officials and employees and specific charges against them. But already, De Leon feels sorry for his clients who were already serving their suspension based on the Ombudsman’s order.

Martires questioned though yesterday why should the Ombudsman be blamed for NFA’s own actions to padlock their warehouses. While he lauded the cooperation of the DA Secretary, Martires denounced alleged attempts of unnamed NFA officials who obviously wanted to drag down the Ombudsman investigation.

“So don’t blame me kung mabubulok ang bigas,” Martires quipped.

Preventing rice from getting rotten must start at removing the rot and the rats at the NFA.

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