Manila, Feb. 20, 2003 -- Claiming diplomatic immunity, officials of the US-funded lobby group accused of "espionage" against the Philippines yesterday snubbed a Senate hearing.

The Accelerating, Growth, Investment and Liberalization with Equity (Agile) reportedly sent the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) a copy of the bicameral committee report on proposed amendments to the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA), prompting the task force to reject the amendments even before the measure could be signed into law.

FATF also gave the Philippines until March 15 to comply with its demands or face international sanctions.

Senators rejected the Agile officials' alibi and issued subpoenas to compel their attendance in the public hearing.

"We will not allow such a cavalier treatment of the Senate even in consideration of their letter explaining their absence," Sen. Aquilino Pimentel said.

Ordered to appear before the Senate were Agile chief of party Ramon Clarete, managing director David Tardif-Douglin, project administrator Matthew Buzby, macro-policy task manager Rowena Arceo, capital markets advisor Hugh Patton, capital markets task manager Noel Gamo and bank supervision advisor Francesca Banigued.

Minority leader Vicente Sotto III warned that Agile officials would face contempt charges if they do not honor the Senate subpoenas.

Sen. Joker Arroyo said the hearing would be a failure without the presence of Agile officials since only agents of the well-oiled lobby group could shed light on the allegations against it.

Sen. Manuel Villar called for the banning of Agile representatives from the premises of the Senate, noting reports that Agile agents participated in technical working group deliberations on the final form of economic measures sponsored in the Senate plenary.

He also called for the eviction of Agile from government agencies where the group is holding office.

"Government officials have no business harboring foreign agents. These offices must be cut and cut cleanly from Agile. I cannot fathom why a government office will give office space to a foreign lobby firm," Villar said.

The Senate likewise summoned former Finance Secretaries Jose Pardo and Roberto de Ocampo, Planning Secretary Romulo Neri and the latter's predecessors Cielito Habito and Felipe Medalla.

The seven former cabinet members will be asked whether Agile agents participated in the formulation of economic policies during their terms.

Michael J. Yates, mission director of the US Agency for International Development, said in a four-page letter to Senate President Franklin Drilon that questions related to the activities of Agile should be directed to the finance department and the National Economic and Development Authority, which are supposedly USAID's partners in a steering committee that governs the Agile project.

Yates said the committee was formed under the terms of the Agreement of Economic and Technical Cooperation signed in 1951 between the Philippines and US governments.

"The DOF, NEDA and USAID are the appropriate parties to address the concerns raised in the (Senate) resolution consistent with the terms of the mentioned bilateral agreement," Yates said.

Sotto said Agile was "obviously hiding in the shadows" for fear that its activities would be exposed if its officials appear before the Senate.

Sotto said he was also alarmed with the "flagrant" way by which Yates made it appear he was also representing US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone.

He cited a portion of Yates' letter saying Ricciardone was inviting the senators to his residence to hold informal discussions on Agile's activities.

Sen. Teresa Aquino Oreta said Executive Secretary Alberto Romulo should also be summoned to shed light on the extent of Malacaņang's dealings with Agile.

Drilon agreed that Agile officials have a lot of explaining to do, but reminded Congress not to lose sight of the amendments to the AMLA that must be passed before the March 15 deadline set by FATF.

Bangko Sentral Gov. Rafael Buenaventura said that while it was true Agile has an office at the BSP, its employees do not receive salaries from BSP.

He maintained that the working relationship between the BSP and Agile is based on a 1999 memorandum of agreement between the Philippines and the US for technical and training assistance.

Emmanuel Bonoan, assistant secretary of finance, said that during deliberations on economic measures, Agile representatives merely provided information on how to conduct discussions following international standards, and were not allowed to offer personal opinion on how local laws should be crafted.

Sen. Ralph Recto said Agile was involved in the preparation of rules and regulations to implement the Special Purpose Asset Vehicle Law.

Agile was also reportedly behind the move to replace the Bureau of Internal Revenue with a National Authority for Revenue Administration, which would privatize tax collections.

President Arroyo said she was not aware of reports that the US is behind Agile's lobby efforts for the privatization of the BIR.

"It (Agile) was hired. I don't know because contracts are done at the agency level," she said.

Agile is not registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission supposedly because it is an organization funded by USAID. (Malaya)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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