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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Tiu Laurel takes over NFA as Ombudsman suspends 139

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Agriculture Secretary Francisco Tiu Laurel is taking over the reins of the National Food Authority after at least 139 officials and employees of the agency were placed under preventive suspension by the Office of the Ombudsman on claims they helped sell NFA rice stocks to commercial traders for just P25 per kilo.

Laurel said the Department of Agriculture is giving the Ombudsman full access to all information a DA panel is gathering to conduct the internal investigation into the corruption charge.

“We condemn this and we will not allow any form of corruption at the NFA. We are one with the Ombudsman in this cause to know the truth and punish those who should be punished,” Laurel said in a briefing Monday.

Senator Imee Marcos, meanwhile, said she is filing a Senate resolution to investigate the NFA’s “highly suspicious” P93.75-million sale of 75,000 bags of rice stock to two traders even as countless consumers clamored for cheaper rice.

President Marcos’ sister expressed alarm that the NFA has “completely lost its way” amid a cutback in the global rice supply.

“The Philippines is now the world’s largest rice importer and the dire market situation today will only worsen in the coming months,” Senator Marcos warned, citing El Niño weather disturbances and rice-exporting countries prioritizing their domestic needs.

The DA said it has been coordinating with the Office of Ombudsman since the issue became “public knowledge” and created a special investigating team to determine culpability and how it can prevent it from happening again.

Both the DA internal investigation group and the Ombudsman will investigate records dating back five years earlier, starting 2019 till February 2024, to determine the accuracy of the allegations.

“We intend to dig deep and welcome those who would come forward to assist us in probing the NFA,” Tiu Laurel said.

An NFA employee who used to work at the agency’s marketing division claimed acts of corruption by present NFA officials.

NFA administrator Roderico Bioco has temporarily taken a leave of absence to allow a free hand to the investigation procedure, Laurel said.

Among the accused officials were NFA assistant administrator for operations John Robert Hermano and several regional managers and warehouse supervisors.

Laurel said he will temporarily man the agency until the President appoints another administrator.

“We expect everyone in the agency to do their regular jobs to ensure that out countrymen are provided the service they deserve,” he said.

He also called on the public who have knowledge of the issue to come forward to help resolve the case.

Marcos noted the agency has repeatedly fallen short of its required buffer stock and been unable to cope with higher farmgate prices of palay, which rose to as high as P27 per kilo last year.

Although palay’s farmgate price has dipped to 23 pesos, the NFA had earlier pegged its capacity to subsidize local farmers at only 17 to 19 pesos per kilo.

Marcos said the NFA has been unable to support all local farmers desperate for aid, especially when rice smuggling forced them to sell their harvests below the cost of production.

In calling for an investigation, she emphasized that a thorough review of the NFA’s mandate was crucial to deal with a global rice shortage.

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