MANILA, March 18, 2004  (STAR) By Jose Rodel Clapano - The camp of Sen. Noli de Castro claimed yesterday a demolition job was hatched against the administration vice-presidential candidate to discredit him as the May 10 elections near.

Administration Senators Robert Barbers and Francis Pangilinan also said political rivals were behind the filing of extortion charges against De Castro with the Office of the Ombudsman last Tuesday.

De Castroís spokesman and legal counsel Jesse Andres said the senator will file counter-charges against the group that filed an extortion complaint against him with the Ombudsman.

"It does not even allege any wrongdoing of the senator except that his name was reportedly used by someone who asked for a donation for the senatorís charitable projects. We will face the charges squarely and the truth will come out," Andres said.

"This (filing of the extortion raps) is simply a demolition job out to discredit De Castro. We all know that he is leading by a wide margin in the vice presidential surveys," Barbers added.

"His rivals are now resorting to black propaganda with the hope of tarnishing De Castroís credibility before his immense popularity soars to unreachable heights prior to the May 10 elections," he said.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan, for his part, said the accusations were "obviously politically motivated."

Six officials of the Bagong Lahi Pilipino Development Foundation Inc. (BLDFI) led by businessman Andrew Gonzales filed the two-page complaint on Tuesday accusing De Castro of extorting P3.5 million from the group during his stint as a broadcast journalist in the television network ABS-CBN.

In their two-page complaint, the group alleged De Castro used his "Magandang Gabi Bayan" program in January 2002 to destroy the reputation of the foundation after its officers refused to shell out the money.

De Castro, running mate of President Arroyo who is seeking a full six-year term in the May elections, is principally up against a colleague in the Senate and another popular television journalist, Sen. Loren Legarda, running mate of actor Fernando Poe Jr. of the opposition Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP).

Both had worked from the Lopez family-owned ABS-CBN television network.

Andres said the timing of the accusations was "highly suspicious and malicious" considering the proximity of the May elections.

He stressed Gonzales should have filed the case against De Castro two years ago.

"A person cannot be accused of extortion merely by an allegation that someone else used his name in trying to secure a donation," Andres pointed out.

Barbers, chairman of the Senate committee on public order, also questioned the timing of the accusations hurled against De Castro.

"If their charges of extortion are really serious, they should have filed those charges when De Castro was still campaigning as an independent during the 2001 senatorial elections. Why only now will they raise this issue? That answers the question," Barbers said.

Pangilinan said a probe should be conducted to "look deeper into who are behind this group making such claims and who is to benefit from it."

Barbers and Pangilinan vouched for the integrity of De Castro as a broadcast journalist.

"I know Kabayan (De Castro) as a man of principle who has earned his laurels as a respectable media practitioner through hard work and pure perseverance," Barbers said.

"He will never sacrifice his name and integrity in exchange for an alleged extortion attempt," he added.

Barbers said if the accusations were true, ABS-CBN would have investigated and dismissed De Castro.

"Iím sure that they (ABS-CBN) have known about this allegation and have likewise investigated. It seems that they did not give merit (to) the issue being thrown at De Castro because it was baseless," he said.

Pangilinan, who also had a stint as a radio commentator at ABS-CBNís dzMM before he was elected to the Senate, said he had never come across any accusations questioning the integrity of De Castro.

"Having worked alongside Senator De Castro in ABS-CBN for nearly 10 years, I have never come across any instance that suggests that (he) was unscrupulous or engaged in questionable media practices," Pangilinan said.

He admitted several "white paper" were circulating in the industry accusing several mediamen of corrupt practices. "These (accusations) were common but evidence was always wanting," he said.

The BLDFI claimed not giving in to De Castroís demands to pay P3.5 million as "membership fee" in exchange for prominent media mileage in "Magandang Gabi Bayan" and in the senatorís radio program over dzMM . The group said De Castro claimed the money would be used to buy "medicines and wheelchairs" for the indigent.

Asked to comment on the timing of the charges, Gonzales said it was only recently that they were able to gather evidence to back up their accusations against the senator. Gonzales claimed other charity groups and non-government organizations were also victimized by De Castro.

"Our charges against Sen. Noli de Castro for extortion is not mere political propaganda but a genuine search for punishment and retribution against one who has abused the power of his profession," Gonzales said.

In a statement, Gonzales stressed no politics was involved in the filing of the charges since these are based on "factual events."

He said many other victims of the senator only came out recently with their own grievances.

"In fact, with the multitude of victims, we are forming the Alyansa ng Kinotongan at Inabuso ni Noli (AKIN) to coordinate the efforts of all victims of De Castroís extortion activities to prosecute their cases against the senator," he said.

Gonzales said the charges they filed against De Castro are "just the tip of the iceberg."

He said some of the complainants will come from different parts of the country to join in the complaint. "Some are from the Visayas and Mindanao," he said.

Gonzales also welcomed the filing of counter-charges against them by De Castro and branded Barbers as "pakialamero" (meddler).

"We intend to unmask the countryís greatest pretender who calls himself Mr. Clean. If Barbers believes De Castro is innocent... then weíll prosecute him too," Gonzales warned. - With Sammy Santos

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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