MANILA, SEPTEMBER 20, 2007 (STAR) President Arroyo ordered yesterday three Cabinet officials to appear today at the Senate inquiry into the controversial $330-million national broadband network (NBN) contract with ZTE Corp. of China.

Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Benjamin Abalos also announced that he would attend the public hearing to dispute allegations that he lobbied for the Chinese firm.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said Mrs. Arroyo has instructed the Cabinet members involved in the ZTE deal to attend the hearing at the Senate.

Among the Cabinet officials summoned to attend the initial hearing last Tuesday but did show up were Transportation and Communications Secretary Leandro Mendoza, Trade Secretary Peter Favila and Commission on Higher Education chairman Romulo Neri.

Cabinet officials have avoided attending congressional inquiries by invoking Executive Order 464 that compels government officials to seek the permission of the President before they can attend public hearings in the House and Senate.

Mrs. Arroyo had earlier ordered Mendoza to explain the ZTE contract as well as the intricacies of the NBN to the Supreme Court (SC), which issued a temporary restraining order on the project following the two suits filed against the government by Iloilo Vice Gov. Rolex Suplico and losing bidder Jose de Venecia III, son and namesake of Speaker Jose de Venecia and a majority stockholder of Amsterdam Holdings Inc.

The younger De Venecia had implicated First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo and Abalos for lobbying in favor of ZTE.

De Venecia told the Senate inquiry last Tuesday that Mr. Arroyo shoved his finger in his face and ordered him to “back off” from bidding for the contract.

He said Mr. Arroyo had attended a “reconciliatory meeting” at the Wack Wack Golf and Country Club in Mandaluyong to let the Chinese firm bag the multimillion dollar broadband deal.

De Venecia told the Senate Blue Ribbon committee that the meeting, which took place in mid-March, was arranged by Mendoza to reconcile him and Abalos.

He claimed that Abalos offered him $10 million to withdraw his company’s bid but he refused.

The Cabinet officials who earlier failed to face the Senate inquiry have cited various reasons including EO 464.

“The President would like to tell everybody that there’s really nothing wrong with all these issues and the administration is willing to reveal all that it knows about the contract,” Ermita told reporters at Malacañang.

“So to that extent, I can tell you that our Cabinet officials concerned will be in a position to explain more details that will clarify things that have come out so far,” he said.

He said if the Cabinet members continue to be absent in the investigation, jointly conducted by the Senate Blue Ribbon and Trade and Commerce committees, “people might think that there are things that are being (kept).”

“This (attendance at Senate) is to set the record straight about that things that are being said,” Ermita said.

When asked what possible explanations the summoned Cabinet officials would be making in their statements, he said: “Just await the testimonies and information that our Cabinet members who will attend the meeting (inquiry) tomorrow will give.”

Ermita said he could not speak for First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, who was also invited to the inquiry after Mr. Arroyo was implicated by De Venecia III in the NBN controversy.

Mr. Arroyo left for Hong Kong on Monday but his lawyers said the trip had nothing to do with the investigation.

Abalos also changed his mind and said that he wants to clear his name following De Venecia’s testimony at the Senate that he brokered the broadband contract for ZTE Corp.

“I owe it to myself to explain and tell the people (my side),” he noted in an interview over radio station dzMM. He claimed to have told the other Comelec commissioners that his appearance at the Senate hearing is not meant to compromise the independence of the Comelec.

Abalos was earlier hesitant to attend the Senate inquiry for fear that it would set a bad precedent for other Comelec commissioners summoned by any investigative body.

He added that because the Comelec is a constitutional body, Comelec commissioners could not be investigated unless they are impeached.

Abalos, however, appealed to the public not to prejudge him. “I hope the people would reserve their judgment (until they hear everybody else testify). I cannot understand how he (De Venecia) can weave a concoction of lies.”

He urged other officials involved in the ZTE deal to speak up and clarify the alleged irregularities in the project.

Senators assured Cabinet members of “respect” during Senate inquiries on the NBN deal.

“If indeed they have nothing to hide, then the appropriate course of action is to attend the hearing and defend the legality of contract. To refuse to appear does not only create the perception of guilt but also places the executive department in a constitutional collision course with the legislature which does not do our constitutional democracy any good,” Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan said.

“We assure the members of the Cabinet that their rights shall be respected and that they will be treated fairly and with due courtesy,” Pangilinan said.

Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, chairman of the Blue Ribbon committee that is leading the investigation into the NBN deal along with the trade and commerce committee chaired by Sen. Manuel Roxas II, said they were happy to hear about Malacañang’s change of heart.

Roxas said only the representatives of the government would know about the details of the contract and how it was negotiated.

“If they are prevented from reporting the same, we will never be clear as to what, how much, where, when, etcetera of these contracts. At the end of the day, it is they who can defend the contract,” Roxas noted.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson said Malacañang’s decision would save all of them from tedious court proceedings over EO 464 and Memorandum Circular 108, which was also issued by the Palace to set the guidelines for executive officials attending legislative hearings.

“They will end up losers in the end because the people’s perception will be that they are hiding something. If they will not answer, we will hear only one side everyday,” Lacson said.

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago commended President Arroyo for her decision.

“This is in keeping with the trend in the Supreme Court to expand the power of Congress to conduct legislative inquiries that are in aid of legislation. It was in a series of cases last year where the Supreme Court made the power broader on the ground that the right to hold legislative investigations in aid of legislation is constitutionally protected,” Santiago said.

This developed as two Catholic bishops yesterday criticized the Arroyo administration for earlier ignoring the Senate’s inquiry into the broadband deal.

Caloocan Bishop Deogracias Iniguez Jr. and Lingayen–Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz said the Palace should cooperate with the ongoing investigation and clarify issues hounding the $330-million deal.

“This is really a puzzle to me. Why does it seem that the executive branch is withholding its cooperation? This makes us think they are hiding something,” Iniguez said in an interview with the Church-run Radyo Veritas. - –Paolo Romer, Sheila Crisostomo, Edu Punay, Aurea Calica

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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