Senate doubts 'handler' of rice smugglers

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

ALLEGED rice broker Eugene Pioquinto of Starcraft International Trading Corporation on Tuesday denied before the Senate committee on agriculture and food that he handled and processed documents of companies linked to rice smuggling in the country.

Citing an audit report of the National Food Authority (NFA), Senate panel chairperson Senator Cynthia Villar said Pioquinto was the representative of illegal rice traders.

Pioquinto said Starcraft started importing rice last year and has so far imported about 600 containers.

"Nakalagay you were the one who handled several entities and answered queries for them. Ikaw ang sumasagot so ikaw ang handler...Sinasabi mo ba na nagsisinungaling ang NFA?" Villar told Pioquinto.

"Magsabi ka na ng totoo. Remember you're under oath. Sabihin mo na ikaw ang handler ng mga kompanya na ito and you know them. Kasi ikaw naman talaga diba?" Villar added.

Pioquinto said he only borrowed the documents because he was interested in "other businesses."

Pressed further by Villar, Pioquinto said he needs to consult his lawyer who was absent in the hearing. Pioquinto said there was a conflict in the schedule of his counsel and the committee hearing.

Emmanuel Santos, a longtime customs broker, earlier admitted to the committee that he, Pioquinto, and alleged rice smuggling king Davidson Bangayan who goes by the alias "David Tan" are business partners in at least three companies that are no longer in operation.

"Kung kailangan ko po ng tulong niya sa Starcraft International, doon ko po siya hinihingian ng tulong... (Pero) hindi po ako empleyado ni Mr. Santos," Pioquinto said.

Santos skipped the hearing due to "dizziness and difficulty in breathing."

His lawyer was required by the Senate committee to submit a medical certificate issued by a doctor under oath otherwise he will be cited for contempt.

Judilyne Lim of DGL Commodities Inc. likewise failed to attend the probe. According to her lawyer, she underwent a medical procedure Tuesday morning.

In the previous hearing, Lim was cited for contempt for denying that DGL Commodities tapped farmers' cooperatives as fronts in the illegal rice trade.

Lim however then admitted that Lea Echeveria was an employee of their company until 2012.

Echeveria is being hunted by government authorities for her alleged role in illegal rice trading. Romulo Asis, chief of the anti-graft division of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), said Echeveria remains to be in hiding. Echeveria had been repeatedly invited by the Senate committee to attend the hearing on rice smuggling.

"We have located the residence of Ms. Lea Echeveria but obviously she doesn't like to talk with us. She's still in hiding but just the same, we have already gathered information...If there is a need for us to serve a subpoena from this committee, then we will your honor," Asis said.

The Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (Sinag) had already put up a P200,000 bounty for any information on the whereabouts of Echeveria.

Another rice consolidator, Elizabeth Faustino of Biklat, was also a no-show at the Senate hearing. The committee cited her in "conditional" contempt" and invited her doctors to the panel's next probe.

"Kung hindi totoo ang sinasabi niya, then she will be arrested. We also request the Bureau of Immigration to place Faustino under watchlist order," Villar said. (Sunnex)

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