MANILA - Some senators are convinced that the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) connived with a rice exporter from India and a local company to attempt to smuggle almost P500-million worth of white Indian rice to the country.
During Wednesday's Senate agriculture committee hearing on rice smuggling, senators took the SBMA to task for allowing a shipment of 420,000 bags of rice from India to be unloaded at the Subic Bay Freeport last April even without an import permit from the National Food Authority (NFA).
The Bureau of Customs (BOC) has seized the items, which are stored in two warehouses in Subic. A warrant of seizure and detention was issued against the shipment last May after the NFA said it has not given a permit for the rice shipment.
"Maraming mali sa sistema," Sen. Ralph Recto, chair of the ways and means committee, told reporters after the hearing. "Pero ang mas malaking mali, 'yong sabwatan ng mga tao."
Based on documents from the BOC, Recto noted during the hearing that the Indian rice exporter, Amira Foods International, got in touch with the SBMA to look for a consignee that would take care of the shipment.
An official of the consignee, Metro Eastern Trading, confirmed that he met with Stefani Saño, SBMA's senior deputy administrator for business and investment. Saño was not present in the hearing.
Asked what the meeting was for, Cesar Bulaon of Metro Eastern Trading said the SBMA asked his company to provide a warehouse for the sacks of rice from Amira Foods.
He added that Saño asked Metro Eastern if it could sell the rice in the local market. At that time, however, the NFA could no longer issue a permit for new rice imports because it had already closed the bidding on March 26, said its administrator Lito Banayo.
The country has been limiting rice imports as it aims to be self-sufficient by next year.
But Bulaon said he also met with a certain Vicente "Bong" Cuevas, who reportedly promised to get an import permit from the NFA within 6 to 7 days.
Officials of the SBMA and BOC said they do not know Cuevas, but Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile identified him as an influential man during the previous administration.
SBMA officials present in Wednesday's hearing claimed having no personal knowledge of Saño's meeting with Bulaon.
"To my knowledge, we do not do that," said SBMA chairman and Administrator Roberto Garcia when asked if it's SBMA's practice to talk to exporters and consignees.
Redentor Tuazon, SBMA's senior deputy administrator for operations, also explained that they allowed the unloading of the shipment from India because Metro Eastern Trading told them the import permit is already being processed.
Banayo said, however, that the NFA no longer issued permits after it closed its bidding.
"Mali po ang dahilan na sinasabi ninyo na nilalakad na ang permit ng bigas. Bakit po tinanggap ng Subic ang dahilan na 'yon?" Sen. Loren Legarda asked SBMA officials.
"Subic Bay is also a freeport zone," answered Tuazon.
But SBMA officials failed to convince Enrile, who initiated the Senate investigation on rice smuggling.
"You don't know how to operate a freeport. Palusot 'yan," he said. "You don't deserve to administer a freeport if that's your attitude."
'Clear attempt to smuggle'
Enrile believes there was a clear attempt to smuggle rice to the Philippines because the shipment's bill of lading states Subic as the port of entry, even if the ship passed by Singapore and Indonesia first.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan, chair of the agriculture committee, said more questions will be asked when the hearing continues next week. Enrile said he will "unmask" the people behind the foiled operation.
"Ang daming kuwestyon na kailangang masagot nitong mga opisyal lalo na ng SBMA. Bakit binaba? Bakit mayro'ng usapan na kukuha ng permit? Bakit ilalabas sa lokal na merkado?" Pangilinan said. "Ang daming lumabas na paliwanag na nagpapakitang mayro'ng sabwatan."
While the incident is under investigation, Enrile ordered the BOC to secure the the sacks of rice. The BOC has already issued an order forfeiting them.
Recto, meanwhile, suggested that the rice be distributed to the poor and victims of recent calamities at no cost to the government.