03 August 2012

Subic exec denies role as broker in rice fiasco

The deputy administrator of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority on Thursday denied that he acted as a go-between for an Indian company accused of smuggling 420,000 bags of rice into the country and a consignee based in the free port.

Stefani Saño said that, contrary to the testimony given at the Senate Wednesday, he did not broker a meeting between Amira C Foods International of India and Metro Eastern Trading Corp., a Subic Bay tenant.

In a statement submitted to the office of SBMA chairman and administrator Roberto V. Garcia, Saño said that, on March 20, Vicente Cuevas, a registered free port investor, invited him to a restaurant inside Subic to meet Indian businessmen who were interested in setting up logistics facilities.

He said that when he arrived at the restaurant, he saw Cuevas, Cesar Bulaon of Metro Eastern, and a group of Indian businessmen who introduced themselves as representatives of Amira Foods.

Protik Guha, who introduced himself as the head of the Indian delegation, said America was one of the biggest grain traders in India and was interested in investing in Subic.

Saño said Guha wanted to know if Metro Eastern was a registered company authorized to handle importations.

Guha also inquired about the SBMA’s policies on transshipment and logistics operations, activities that Saño said the SBMA wanted to promote.

Saño also said he was not at the Senate hearing Wednesday despite newspaper reports that attributed statements to him.

“I was in Subic and was surprised when informed by Chairman Garcia about the allegations made by Bulaon linking him with the rice importation fiasco,” Saño said.

He admitted meeting once more with Amira officials at the Edsa Shangri-La in Mandaluyong on March 22 with Cuevas, but not with Bulaon. At that meeting, the Amira officials again expressed interest in setting up operations at the Subic free port, he said.

He was accompanied at the meeting by Ivy Alipoon from the SBMA’s logistics department, who was appointed account officer for Amira’s project.

On May 21, Amira submitted a letter of intent signifying its plan to set up a business inside the Subic free port, and said it was looking for a one-hectare site to set up its logistics facilities.

Saño, who is scheduled to appear before the Senate panel investigating the rice shipment on Tuesday, said he would be denying any role in its processing or that he helped find the warehouse to store the grain.

Also on Thursday, the Bureau of Customs said the Indian rice shipment was originally 430,000 bags, but 4,000 bags were lost to pilferage, leaving only 426,000 bags.

A memo from X-ray Inspection Project field officer Filemon Obejas Jr. said 430,000 bags of rice consigned to Metro Eastern arrived in bulk, but they could account for only 426,000 bags because of pilferage from the warehouse where it was stored.

It was unclear, however, why only 420,000 bags were eventually reported.

Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon said the shipment from India arrived on April 4 aboard the vessel Vinalines Mighty.

Biazon said his men got suspicious when the importer failed to produce the needed requirements for rice importation such as the allocation and import permits from the National Food Administration.

Metro Eastern said the real consignee of the shipment was Amira, and that the rice was originally destined for Jakarta but its import permit there had lapsed because of the delays in its shipment.

But Subic officials said the shipment was really destined for delivery to the Philippines based on its bill of lading.

A packing list and commercial invoice from Amira also identified Metro Eastern as the consignee and Subic as the port of discharge.

“Without doubt, this is a case of large-scale attempt to smuggle rice into the country. Had we not stopped this illegal rice importation, it could have caused tremendous damage to our local farmers,” said Biazon who ordered the shipment seized.

Amira later filed an appeal to have its shipment released. (Willie E. Capulong, Joel E. Zubano and Othel V. Campos, The Manila Standard Today)