A solon urged Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala to take a leave of absence pending results of the probe by the National Bureau of Investigation or NBI regarding his alleged link to the “garlic cartel”.
Valenzuela City Congressman Win Gatchalian said Alcala should heed the example of former Health Secretary Enrique Ona, who took a one-month leave of absence from his department while the NBI is investigating the expensive vaccines procured by the Department of Health or DOH.
After his leave was extended by Malacanang, Ona has since resigned from his post.
“Secretary Alcala should face a thorough probe by the NBI since his being linked to the garlic cartel is a very serious allegation that must be investigated to the fullest,” said Gatchalian, who represents Valenzuela City’s first district.
“Secretary Alcala should not wear thin his friendship and influence with President Aquino. It’s about time that he insulates the chief executive by taking a leave of absence until he is finally cleared by the NBI. He should do a Secretary Ona,” he added.
This is not the first time that allegations of corruption have been hurled against Secretary Alcala, the solon noted. Several plunder and graft cases have been filed against Alcala in the Ombudsman but he managed to keep his post.
A whistle-blower implicated the agriculture secretary in the garlic cartel. In a sworn statement, Elizabeth “Lilybeth” Valenzuela, a garlic importer, said former Bureau of Plant Industry Director Clarito Barron had told importers that they must have Alcala’s blessings so they could be issued the import permits.
“You should have connections to Alcala. If you have no blessings from Alcala, your company will not be issued an import permit,” Valenzuela quoted Barron as telling her and others seeking import permits. The NBI said Barron was paid P60,000 per import permit by garlic importers.
Valenzuela also pointed to Lilia Matabang Cruz, alias Leah Cruz, as the favored importer who gets the lion’s share of import permits for garlic and onion. Cruz is the president of the Vegetables Importers Exporters and Vendors Association in the Philippines Inc (VIEVA), which was the recipient of 2,469 plant quarantine clearance (import permit) for garlic from 2010 to 2014 out of the 3,652 permits that were issued by BPI.
Aside from being president of VIEVA, Cruz is also the chairperson of the National Onion Action Team (NOAT) as well as the National Garlic Action Team (NGAT), which are both governed by a consultative body which is directly under the Department of Agriculture. The National Agriculture and Fisheries Council and DA-High Value Crops Development Program serve as the secretariat of the NOAT and NGAT.
It was because of Cruz’s control of the NOAT and NGAT and her being VIEVA president that she was able to monopolize the importation of garlic and onion into the country with the collusion of the BPI through its former director, Clarito Barron who was sacked from his position at the height of the NBI investigation into the spike on the prices of garlic during the middle of 2014.
“The evident partiality of the BPI officials in the issuance of import permits and giving undue advantage to VIEVA (which received 68 percent of the import permits) have resulted in a situation wherein the garlic traders and importers were able to control the supply as well as the price of garlic,” stated in NBI report.
The NBI probe stemmed from a price spike in mid-2014 that saw the price of a kilo of garlic skyrocketing to as high as P300 a kilo. Prices are currently within the range of P80 to P100 a kilo, based on DA monitoring.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said that the NBI was looking into the allegations against Alcala. “It’s an on-going investigation. We will look into all allegations, including that against Secretary Alcala, but for the meantime the evidence is sufficient for the others,” De Lima was quoted as saying.
Gatchalian said Alcala should be made to explain why Leah Cruz was allowed to be the president of NOAT and NGAT which further strengthened her monopoly of the import permits for both garlic and onion.
“Is Leah Cruz that influential in the agriculture department that she practically corners the bulk of import permits,” he added.
He said Alcala should also be asked why after being sacked from BPI, Director Barron was transferred in July 2014 to the DA’s field operations office after agribusiness groups called for his resignation.
Alcala has similarly harbored Agriculture Undersecretary Antonio Fleta despite documentary evidence that he released millions of funds from the agency to bogus foundations, including non-government organizations owned by accused plunderer and pork barrel queen, Janet Lim-Napoles.
“There is a preponderance of circumstantial evidence pointing to Secretary Alcala’s possible link to the garlic racket which should be reason enough for him to take a leave of absence pending results of the NBI probe,” Gatchalian said. (R. Burgos)