MANILA, Philippines - Who was the informant that tipped off the Bureau of Customs (BOC) about an unauthorized shipment to Subic of 420,000 bags of rice from India?
No less than President Benigno Aquino III, according to Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon.
Biazon was at first reluctant to name his informant during the second Senate hearing on rice smuggling on Monday, saying it was confidential.
But senators pressed him to name the source of his information, which eventually led to the seizure of the goods.
"What's the secret about that?" Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said after Biazon named President Aquino. "We should commend the President for complying with his oath to execute the laws faithfully."
Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada asked Biazon if the BOC would have known about the Indian rice shipment had the President not alerted him.
Biazon said they still would have known about it because the BOC was part of the group that checked the shipment when it arrived in the country.
He explained that he had no clearance from the President to reveal that he was the informant.
"But of course, I would yield to the honorable senators if they felt that I had to reveal my source," Biazon said. "The President really is serious in combating smuggling, and he should be rightfully commended for that."
'I could have prevented it'
At the previous hearing on August 1, senators took officials of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) to task for allowing the rice shipment worth almost P500 million to be unloaded last April even without an import permit from the National Food Authority (NFA). They said the SBMA connived with the importer, Amira Foods, and the local consignee, Metro Eastern Trading.
The BOC has seized the goods, which are currently stored in two warehouses in Subic. A warrant of seizure and detention was issued against the shipment last May after the NFA said it did not issue a permit for it.
Redentor Tuazon, SBMA's senior deputy administrator for operations, admitted during Monday's hearing that it was his own judgment to allow the shipment in.
"I could have prevented it," he said.
Tuazon explained, however, that because the shipment had no import permit, the SBMA did not allow it to be sold in the market.
He also cited Customs Administrative Order 4-93, which allows foreign shipments to be unloaded but held for 30 days until it gets the necessary papers. Without a permit, "it is considered abandoned by operation of law in 30 days," Tuazon added.
But Sen. Loren Legarda pointed out that the NFA will not issue new permits for rice imports until next year. Tuazon said the SBMA was not aware of it.
"It should be incumbent upon your office to know which are prohibited goods and not," Senate agriculture committee chair Francis Pangilinan told Tuazon.
Stefani Sano, SBMA's deputy administrator for business and development, attended the hearing to deny that he asked Metro Eastern to provide a warehouse for the shipment from Amira Foods.
Cesar Bulaon of Metro Eastern Trading said during the previous hearing that Sano was the one who introduced him to officials of Amira Foods and asked him to look for a warehouse for the rice shipment.
"I categorically state that I did not participate in any manner in the processing of the shipment, including the alleged search for warehouses for the importation in question, or anything pertaining to the shipment," Sano said.
Bulaon told senators that he did not tag Sano, and clarified that it was Sano's secretary who told him about Amira Foods' need for a warehouse.
But senators cited the transcript of the previous hearing where Bulaon said otherwise.
JPE denies involvement in smuggling
Sano found himself in hot water, however, for using the name of Enrile to get a certification from SBMA for the rice shipment.
According to Tuazon, Sano called him on behalf of a certain Vicente "Bong" Cuevas, who allegedly promised to get a permit for the shipment within 6 to 7 days. He said Sano asked for a certification to release the shipment.
"Ang sabi ni Mr. Sano, 'Pare, si Bong Cuevas, JPE 'yan," Tuazon said.
Tuazon said he did not issue any certification.
Enrile did not confirm or deny having ties with Cuevas, whom he described during the previous hearing as an influential person during the previous administration
But he asked Sano, "Bakit mo binanggit ang pangalan ko kay Mr. Tuazon? Para maimpluwensiyahan si Mr. Tuazon na ibigay niya ang gusto ninyo dahil sa supposed connection niya sa akin?"
Sano admitted using Enrile's name to speed up the processing of the certification, saying Cuevas told him before that he knows the senator personally.
Sano apologized for it, but Enrile did not accept his apology.
Enrile quickly left the session hall after Monday's hearing, but told reporters, "I know myself. I am not involved with smuggling."
Cuevas and officials of Amira Foods were invited to the next hearing on August 20.
No attempt to smuggle
In a press statement prepared by its lawyers, Amira Foods denied attempting to smuggle rice into the Philippines.
Amira's counsels from the law firm Ongkiko Manhit Custodio & Acorda said the bags of rice were not intended to be sold in the Philippines, contrary to the BOC's claim.
They said it was originally bound for Indonesia, but was rejected for arriving late.
"Local importers claiming to have NFA import licenses have actively offered to purchase the goods. While these documents have been furnished to BOC, our client did not pursue this avenue, as in fact, the Philippines was, and still not, a target final destination for the goods," they said.
"Our client continued to explore potential international buyers for the goods. At or about the end of June 2012, our client was able to finalize negotiations with an international buyer in the United Arab Emirates. The full execution of this transaction, however, is being delayed by the actions of the BOC, which has caused great financial and reputational damage to our client, an innocent party."
The lawyers added that the BOC did not wait for the 30-day period for Amira to secure a permit when it seized the goods.
But according to them, the 30-day period does not apply because the goods were only for transshipment.
"Our client relied in good faith on information given to it by its locator; for transshipment purposes, the only requirements were to file shipping documents with the SBMA within 30 days, and to be current on the payment of warehouse charges," they said.