• Agri chief set to sue importer for linking him to garlic ‘cartel’

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    AGRICULTURE Secretary Proceso Alcala on Thursday threatened to file a case against a certain Lilybeth Valenzuela, a garlic importer, for maliciously dragging his name in the garlic “cartel.”

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    Valenzuela had filed a sworn statement with the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), claiming that she was told by former Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) Director Clarito Barron that garlic importers need to get “the blessing” of Alcala before they can obtain approval of their import permits.

    The Agriculture chief, however, denied any involvement in any illegal act nor has he exerted any influence to favor any business interest in the issuance of import permits or quarantine clearances.

    “These are malicious imputations,” Alcala said, adding that the burden of proof is on Valenzuela to prove her allegations.

    “Even Department of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said there isn’t enough evidence to implicate me [in]the alleged cartel. Dapat patunayan niya lahat ng accusations, kung hindi, ako naman ang maghahabol sa kanya [She has to prove her accusations, or else I will take her to court],” the Agriculture secretary said.

    Malacañang also on Thursday defended Alcala from Valenzuela’s allegations.

    In a news conference, Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said Alcala himself denied any involvement in the so-called cartel.

    “I deny any involvement in any illegal act, nor have I exerted any influence to favor any business interest in the issuance of import permits or quarantine clearances,” Coloma quoted Alcala as saying.

    “Nowhere in the NBI report is it stated that I am accused of benefiting monetarily,” he
    further quoted the Agriculture chief as saying.

    De Lima earlier said evidence gathered by the NBI on  Alcala’s alleged involvement in the cartel and the sudden surge in garlic prices last year was still insufficient.

    Meanwhile, Alcala said the Agriculture department is supporting the move of the Department of Justice (DOJ)  to help address reported irregularities in the garlic issue.

    “Now, charges are being filed before the Office of the Ombudsman and the DOJ against those believed to be involved in the so-called garlic cartel. And this would give an opportunity for the accused officials of the BPI, members of the NGAT and its farmers other individuals and groups to face the charges,” he added.

    Alcala added that the department considers the investigation as an opportunity to finally address the problem and to fully implement  reforms that have been introduced to protect the local garlic industry against unfair trade practices.

    Lawyer Emerson Palad, Agriculture department spokesman and undersecretary for field operations, said  the department will not condone any activity that runs counter to principles of good and faithful governance.

    “Under Secretary Alcala’s leadership, we continued to assert greater transparency and efficiency in the delivery of services at the Bureau of Plant Industry, notably in the issuance of quarantine clearances,” Palad added.

    In fact, he said, they released in July 2014 a fresh set of guidelines for quarantine clearances.

    Palad  urged consumers to patronize local garlic and other local agricultural products as the only way to support the domestic garlic industry.

    The Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (Sinag) earlier said unscrupulous traders and smugglers, in cahoots with misguided government officials, were to blame for last year’s controversial garlic price increase.

    According to Sinag, local garlic producers are struggling to recover from the 20-year policy of “wanton” importation and smuggling in lieu of domestic production.

    “With less than 15 percent of the country’s garlic requirements produced locally, importers and traders that formed the garlic cartel continue to dictate prices since there is no local production to counter the steep price of imported and/or smuggled garlic,” Sinag Chairperson Rosendo So said.

    Despite an uphill battle against smugglers and cartels, Sinag said the agriculture sector is seeing a steady revival in the last few years.

    “Local producers are again encouraged and revitalized to produce the country’s food needs,” he added.

    On Wednesday, the NBI filed before the Office of the Ombudsman the first set of criminal charges against Barron and more than 100 others, including  “dummies” of importer Lilia Cruz, alias Leah Cruz, who reportedly cornered at least 75 percent of the total garlic importation in the country by virtue of BPI import permits.

    The second set of such charges will have been filed on Thursday with the DOJ for violating  the Price Act, Monopolies and Combinations in restraint of trade under the Revised Penal Code; using fictitious name and concealing true names, also under the RPC; and obstructing apprehension and prosecution of criminal offenders under Presidential Decree 1892.

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