Manila, Jan. 19, 2003 (Tribune) - Unable to get the Tribune to stop writing about the $14-million Impsa (Industrias Metalurgicas Pescarmona Sociedad Anonima) bribe deal, Malacaņang Friday tapped the services of former Philippine Ambassador to Argentina Carlos Villa Abrille and Impsa representative Francisco Ruben Valenti, in an attempt to silence the Tribune through a libel suit which the two claimed in a press conference held Friday they would be filing.

Malacaņang's hand in the press conference was clear.

The press conference to which the Tribune was not invited, had Presidential Adviser on Media and Ecclesiastical Affairs Conrado "Dodi" Limcaoco seated between Villa Abrille and Valenti who figured in the lobbying of the Impsa contract approval, from the days of the Ramos presidency, to the Estrada presidency, and to the current Arroyo admininistration.

The Tribune last Thursday had as its banner, the reported meeting between Mrs. Arroyo and the Impsa personalities, Villa Abrille and Valenti at the Linden Suites which served as the Edsa II headquarters of Mrs. Arroyo, just before she was sworn in as acting president by Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr.

Valenti was quoted as saying during the press conference that he had never met Mrs. Arroyo to this day.

Villa Abrille denied meeting Mrs. Arroyo at the Linden Suites.

Valenti is set to file a libel suit against the Tribune for its story on the alleged P14-million payoff it gave to government officials in exchange for a sovereign guarantee for its power project.

Every newspaper in town wrote on this. On the reported meeting between the Impsa representative and Mrs. Arroyo at the Linden Suites, this too, appeared in most of the newspapers, as written up by the PCIJ.

But it is only the Tribune that Impsa is focusing on.

Reporters who covered the press conference told the Tribune Valenti said the Argentine power firm would file a libel suit against Tribune reporter Angie Rosales, News Editor Romulo Mariņas and Tribune Publisher Ninez Cacho-Olivares.

Tribune reporters were apparently not invited to the press conference, which was facilitated by Limcaoco at the New World Hotel in Makati City.

"That's what is strange. Dodi was there at the press conference, the sources said yesterday.

Palace insiders said the Palace managed this press conference and tapped the Impsa people.

The sources said Mrs. Arroyo's adviser on media affairs was there as a private citizen and to present the side of Malacaņang, with Villa Abrille and Valenti presenting the side of Impsa.

At the Senate committee hearing former Finance Secretary Jose Pardo, in reply to the panel's questions, admitted that Valenti and Villa Abrille, together with Impsa lawyers practically pitched camp at the Department of Justice and the Department of Finance to pressure the two officials to grant Impsa the sovereign guaranteee it needed to enable a cash-strapped Impsa to obtain credit from the banks.

This statement was corroborated by former Justice Secretary Artemio Tuquero, former Napocor chief Puno and former Energy Minister Mario Tiaoqui.

A former Estrada official told the Tribune yesterday it was impossible for the same Impsa representatives not to have gone to see Mrs. Arroyo, as reported, since they attempted to exert pressure on the Estrada officials for so long.

"If you know these two (Villa Abrille and Valenti) you'll know they never give up. They were also seen getting out of the Linden Suites that day," he said.

Villa Abrille joined the presidential campaign of the late Ramon Mitra but was said to have been found allegedly working as a Fidel Ramos agent.

Two weeks before election day 1992, agents of Ramos, along with Rafael Alunan, swooped down on the Batasan grounds and raided the Batasan printing press which they claimed was being used by Mitra. It was Villa Abrille who was in charge of the printing requriements of Mitra, which were contracted to two large printing presses.

Co-campaigners of Villa Abrille claimed it was Villa Abrille who set this up for Ramos, to destroy Mitra's chances.

After Ramos' proclamation as president, it was Villa Abrille who was first appointed the new ambassador to Argentina.

One of his first tasks was to get Ramos to award the CBK rehabilitation project of Napocor, to Impsa.

Ramos witnessed the signing of the contract agreement in Malacaņang. Signing for Argentina was then president Carlos Menem.

In the same press conference, Villa Abrille reportedly claimed he did not know Manila Rep. Mark Jimenez, but witnesses say that when he was ambassador to Argentina, Villa Abrille often took his vacations in Miami, Florida, as houseguest of Jimenez.

He is also said to be a boyhood friend of presidential spouse Jose Miguel "Mike" Arroyo.

Newly appointed Justice Secretary Hernando Perez was also spotted by waiters and employees at the coffeshop of the Oakwood in Makati. He was closeted with Valenti, Lito Lorenzana and Val Villanueva. This was just a few days after the Edsa II revolt and shortly after the DoJ ruling was made, giving Impsa the sovereign guarantee.

Meanwhile, Malacaņang yesterday belied reports it had ordered a news blackout on the controversial $14-million Impsa power deal.

But at the same time, the Palace virtually admitted it has failed convince the public that the Arroyo administration is not involved in the alleged $14-million payoff.

Outgoing Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye announced that Malacaņang is preparing another media blitz on the issue to air the government's side on the deal.

As part of this new media strategy, Cabinet members will visit various media forums to answer queries on the issue.

"There are many scheduled media forums where the Impsa deal is the main topic. Cabinet officials are to attend these various media forums," Bunye said in an interview over radio station dzMM.

He said this way they should belie reports that Malacaņang has ordered a news blackout on the issue and to clear the matter once and for all.

Bunye noted Malacaņang would explain the government side on the Impsa deal on a "best effort" basis.

"We'll answer what we can answer. What we can't we'll refer it to the justice or finance departments," he said.

Allegations on the involvement of President Arroyo, her former Justice Secretary Hernando Perez and other unnamed officials were further boosted with the disclosure that Villa Abrille and Impsa Rep. Ruben Valenti reportedly met with Mrs. Arroyo before she was sworn into power on Jan. 20, 2001.

Bunye, who earlier branded the Senate hearing on the Impsa deal a circus after deposed President Joseph Estrada testified on the bribe deal, reiterated his appeal before the media not to make a big issue out of it.

Estrada, in his testimony, claimed his administration never consummated the deal and that it was the resigned Perez who had triggered the completion of the deal, through his ruling that granted Impsa the sovereign guarantee.

Bunye's remarks caught the ire of opposition senators who threatened to summon him to the Senate to explain his statement.

"As far as I know there are no more developments on the matter. But we should not be making an issue out of it. I was just trying to say that the President wants to concentrate on her agenda and that let's not be distracted by such incidents in the Senate," he said.

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