AGRICULTURE Secretary Francisco P. Tiu Laurel, Jr. said 139 officials and employees of the National Food Authority (NFA) have been suspended pending an investigation into the alleged sale of rice meant to constitute the government’s emergency reserve.

Among the suspended officials was NFA Administrator Roderico R. Bioco, he said.

“We are implementing the preventive suspension order of the (Office of the) Ombudsman against 139 officials and employees of the NFA who are being investigated for alleged involvement in the sale of the rice buffer stock,” Mr. Laurel said in a briefing.

In an order, Ombudsman Samuel R. Martires said that NFA officials had “unilaterally select(ed) the commercial rice traders/millers/buyers in the disposition of NFA’s alleged aging rice stock.”

Mr. Martires added that these actions were in “utter disregard” of the NFA Code of Corporate Governance and the Revised Standard Operating Procedure on Sale of NFA Commodities Through Market-Determined Pricing.

Last week, the Department of Agriculture (DA) ordered the creation of an investigative body to look into allegations that NFA officials had authorized the sale of milled rice at non-market prices.

In a special order, the DA said that the investigating committee will be headed by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Director Demosthenes R. Escoto.

“A fact-finding committee is hereby created to investigate and determine all the facts and circumstances regarding the alleged violations and irregularities in the disposition of NFA stocks and other reported anomalies involving officials and or employees,” it said.

According to the DA, rice was sold to traders for P25 a kilogram without bidding, after the palay (unmilled rice) had been purchased at P23 per kilo.

The NFA is required to sell old stock at up to a 10% discount to the mandated price of between P22.5 and P25 per kilo and damaged stocks for at least P6.5 per kilo.

“To avoid any delays in the services and projects of the agency, I will temporarily take over the leadership of the NFA,” Mr. Laurel said.

DA Spokesperson and Assistant Secretary Arnel V. de Mesa said other officials suspended by the Ombudsman included Assistant Administrator for Operations John Robert R. Hermano.

He added that 12 regional managers, 26 branch managers, and 99 warehouse supervisors were also suspended.

“Within 48 hours, the secretary can take over as NFA administrator. Then there will be an emergency NFA Council meeting on Wednesday to appoint a temporary officer in charge, or they will allow (the Secretary) to continue for a few months until someone is appointed,” Mr. De Mesa added.

“The Secretary has already recommended someone… but that is up to Malacañang to decide,” he said. — Adrian H. Halili