MANILA, January 16, 2003 (STAR) He’s done it again.

Former President Joseph Estrada proved to be his own worst witness, according to Senate President Franklin Drilon.

Estrada "dug his own grave" during his testimony before the Senate on the government contract with the Argentine firm Industrias Metalurgicas Perscarmona Sociedad Anonima (Impsa), Drilon said yesterday.

Drilon said Estrada’s testimony last Tuesday before the Senate committee on government corporations and public enterprises headed by Sen. John Osmeña showed that the Impsa contract was perfected during the Estrada administration.

He said it also revealed that Estrada violated protocol and demeaned his office in signing as witness to the contract, and that Estrada erred in not ordering the arrest of Mark Jimenez for offering a $14-million bribe for the approval of the contract.

Sen. Joker Arroyo, meanwhile, said it is a fact that bribes were offered during the Estrada administration, and the administration of President Arroyo must not be made answerable for what transpired during the previous administration.

"The contract was approved during the Estrada administration, perfected during the Estrada administration, and implemented during the Estrada administration. I cannot understand why they are passing the buck to the Arroyo administration," Drilon said.

The two said in a joint press conference that when Estrada signed as a witness to the Impsa contract, he sent the signal that the contract should proceed.

The two, who both served as executive secretary during the administration of Corazon Aquino, said never was there an instance when the incumbent president signed as witness to a contract.

They said that a president signing as witness to a contract demeans his office.

They also took Estrada to task for failing to order the arrest of Jimenez after the latter offered $14 million for the approval of the Impsa contract.

"Mr. Estrada not only failed to order the arrest of Jimenez for bribery – he even named Jimenez his adviser!" Drilon said.

Arroyo said that Estrada was the one close to Jimenez, not Mrs. Arroyo, as he denied the inference that the Arroyo administration accepted a $14-million bribe from Jimenez over the Impsa deal just because an earlier offer was made to Estrada.

"The offer showed the Estrada administration was open to corruption, or there would have not have been any hint of a bribe. Mark Jimenez brokered many deals during the Estrada administration – PCCI, PLDT and now Impsa. So, what else is new?" Arroyo asked.

Both Drilon and Arroyo insisted that the Impsa contract for the rehabilitation of the CBK power plants owned by the National Power Corp. (Napocor) was perfected during the Estrada administration, and not during the Arroyo administration after then Justice Secretary Hernando Perez signed the Government Acknowledgment and Consent Agreement (GACA).

The two downplayed the significance of the GACA signed by Perez.

"The signature of Perez does not add anything to the contract. It is more of a comfort letter," Arroyo said.

They questioned the contention that Perez effectively issued a sovereign guarantee to the payment of obligations to the contract as they maintained that what Perez had signed could be subject to different interpretations.

"But what is undeniable is that it is only the President of the Philippines who could issue a sovereign guarantee. Cabinet members cannot bind the national government except through authorization by the President," Drilon said.

Arroyo pointed out that Estrada granted full powers to then Finance Secretary Edgardo Espiritu, Espiritu’s successor Jose Pardo, then Energy Secretary Mario Tiaoqui, and then Napocor president Federico Puno.

"President Arroyo never gave any full powers to Perez," Arroyo said.

Drilon said that even if Perez’s GACA could be interpreted as a sovereign guarantee, it could not be enforced because Perez had no authority to bind the government.

"The government is saying there is no sovereign guarantee. Impsa is saying there is no sovereign guarantee, so what’s the hullabaloo about sovereign guarantees?" he asked.

Arroyo said that the best evidence is the contract itself, not the testimony of Estrada, (former justice secretary Artemio) Toquero or Pardo.

He added that instead of dwelling on the issue of sovereign guarantee, the Senate should concentrate instead on the issue of whether or not the contract is onerous and disadvantageous to the government.

Drilon said he was not yet prepared to say if the Impsa contract should be invalidated.

"I will wait for the recommendations of the Osmeña committee. I don’t want to preempt the committee report," Drilon said. On to Miami?

Meanwhile, Osmeña said he would summon Perez to the next hearing. He also said his committee is considering the possibility of conducting a hearing in Miami, Florida to hear the side of Jimenez.

Jimenez is currently detained in Miami for failure to post bail for a number of charges, including mail fraud and illegal political contributions.

Drilon said it is but right that Perez be heard "in the spirit of fair play." He, however, opposed any hearing in Miami.

He stressed that the hearing was merely in aid of legislation and that the Senate is not a Philippine National Police investigating an anomaly.

But Osmeña insisted that Drilon has no power to stop a Senate committee from conducting a hearing, even if this entails a trip to Miami.

"He can only disallow the use of government funds for the hearing," Osmeña said, adding that members of his committee would be paying for their own fare and other expenses should they proceed with their cross-Pacific and cross-continent hearing.

He also said he has been in touch with Jimenez’s lawyer in the Philippines, Ed Escueta, who in turn has been in touch with the congressman’s lawyers in Miami.

"Congressman Jimenez is still detained so we could not possibly bring along all the persons we want to get his deposition. What we will do is wait until he has been granted bail. That will probably be on the first week of February," Osmeña said.

The jailed lawmaker is "most eager" to testify before the Senate committee, he said. — Efren Danao, Sammy Santos 

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