[Photo at left - WILL HE CLEAR HER? File photo shows President Arroyo with former NEDA chief Romulo Neri before a Cabinet meeting at Malacañang.]

MANILA, SEPTEMBER 26, 2007 (STAR) By Sheila Crisostomo - After weeks of dilly-dallying, two prominent officials believed to have played major roles in the national broadband network controversy have finally committed to face the Senate today to answer allegations of corruption and possibly even sexual indiscretions.

Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Benjamin Abalos will attend today’s Senate inquiry reportedly against the advice of his lawyer, while Commission on Higher Education head Romulo Neri has been dropped from President Arroyo’s US entourage at the last minute to allow him to show up at the Senate hearing.

“We actually had an argument about it. I advised him not to attend but the chairman really wants to attend. I believe that by doing so, we might unwittingly be playing a role in a propaganda rolled out by the powers behind De Venecia,” Abalos’ lawyer Gabriel Villareal said.

He was referring to Joey de Venecia III, son and namesake of the House Speaker who had accused the Comelec chairman of trying to bribe him out of competing for the broadband project eventually won by ZTE Corp. of China.

The younger De Venecia is a co-founder and majority stockholder of ZTE’s rival Amsterdam Holdings Inc.

Joey III also accused First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo of ordering him to back off from the broadband project and even shoving a finger in his face.

Villareal described De Venecia’s story as a “product of successful propaganda.”

He said he is worried his client would not be treated fairly “in a forum where people just want to show off.”

“He is prepared more than any time. I just hope that the questioning will be done with decency and propriety,” Villareal said.

Neri, under whose watch the National Economic and Development Authority approved the $329-million deal with ZTE Corp., is expected to talk in detail about an alleged P200-million bribe offer from Abalos.

It was said that he confided the bribe offer to Mrs. Arroyo who advised him to ignore it and approve the project anyway.

House Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora told reporters yesterday that Neri visited their common friend last Saturday night to unburden himself on what he knew about the ZTE-NBN deal.

“He promised to talk if he is asked questions. He will tell everything he knows and will tell the truth. He will not destroy his career just to lie,” he said. He said Neri regards their common friend as “his second father.”

Asked what the former NEDA boss would specifically tell senators, Zamora said Neri would talk on “many things that he has told many friends and which have been attributed to him in the media.”

In an interview with journalists recently, Neri refused to deny or confirm the bribe offer from Abalos, a claim the latter has since denied.

A congressman to whom Neri confided the alleged bribe offer said Abalos asked him point blank to approve the ZTE contract in exchange for P200 million.

“There is P200 for you on this,” the Comelec chairman supposedly told Neri, who was stunned by what he heard.

Abalos apparently thought Neri might have misunderstood the figure as P200,000 so he made a follow-up offer. “There is P200 million for you on this.”

“The President’s reaction was a big disappointment for him,” the congressman said of Neri’s reaction to Mrs. Arroyo’s advice for him to forget about the bribe offer.

Neri is also expected to talk on the change in policy relating to the planned government broadband network.

Minutes of a NEDA board meeting held in November 2006 showed the former NEDA chief’s strong opposition to the NBN project.

At the same meeting, the President told the board that the project should entail no cost to the government and that it should not require a government loan.

Last April 20, on the eve of Mrs. Arroyo’s brief visit to Boao, China, the NEDA board endorsed the NBN project.

In Boao the following day, Transportation and Communications Secretary Leandro Mendoza signed the contract with ZTE Corp. vice president Yu Yong in the presence of Mrs. Arroyo and other officials.

Palace trusts Neri

Malacañang is confident Neri’s testimony would show that the national broadband network deal with China was aboveboard.

Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Sergio Apostol said that Neri is prepared to face the Senate committee and reveal everything he knows about the issue.

“It will be justified that there is no corruption in the project,” Apostol said.

Malacañang also reiterated that it had never prevented Neri from attending the Senate hearings. Neri blamed ill-health for his failure to attend the previous Senate hearing.

Secretary to the Cabinet Ricardo Saludo said that it was the President who withdrew Neri from the official delegation to New York so that he could attend today’s hearing.

Saludo also called on the Senate to allow the Cabinet members who attend the hearings the opportunity to explain in full what they know about the issue.

“If they want to come out with the truth and to clear up the issues then they should not interrupt. Allow them to explain. This is not a trial court where they are trying to prove a person is at fault,” Saludo said.

“That is not in aid of legislation. If that is what they want then they should go to court. The complete explanation would not be made if that is the manner of questioning,” he added.

The President said yesterday that a “discreet” investigation showed that allegations of bribery and other irregularities were found to be “uncorroborated.” It was not clear who conducted the investigation or how it was carried out.

“When we learned of alleged bribery attempt in connection with the broadband project, we instructed that the matter be discreetly investigated. The results of the investigations were reported as uncorroborated,” Mrs. Arroyo said at the start of a Cabinet meeting on integrity on government procurement and infrastructure monitoring at Malacañang.

“We proceeded with the preliminary processes regarding the project because we need to keep our good relations with China, even as we consulted with their highest authorities about a possible deferment,” she said, implying that she already entertained the idea of suspending the deal some time ago.

She said she announced the deferment of the two projects as soon as the Chinese government indicated that “they will try to understand our predicament.”

Mrs. Arroyo also maintained that the Philippines’ overall relations with China remain vibrant, citing the numerous projects in the pipeline.

Mrs. Arroyo said her order to suspend NBN and the Cyber Education project “should not be construed as a precedent for every disgruntled project proponent and his backers to undermine undertakings that comply with the law and benefit the nation,” in apparent reference to Joey III’s AHI.

Chance to prove integrity

Iloilo Vice Gov. Rolex Suplico, for his part, advised Neri to “tell the truth” to the senators and prove his integrity as a public servant.

“Now is the time for Secretary Neri to show the Filipino people his mettle as a true public servant. He needs to tell the truth about what he knows in this controversial and onerous contract,” Suplico said in a statement.

Suplico is questioning the broadband deal with ZTE Corp. before the Supreme Court, which issued a temporary restraining order on the project.

He said he feared Neri might cave in to “intense pressure” from top government officials and withhold vital information from the senators.

“Secretary Neri must not shirk from his duty at this point. His knowledge of the shenanigans of the personalities involved in this onerous contract is needed to help the institutions of our government resolve this controversy in favor of protecting the interest of our people,” Suplico said.

Meanwhile, Pangasinan Rep. Victor Agbayani called for sobriety, even as he urged his colleagues in the House to be circumspect in dealing with the ZTE issue.

“The interest of the coalition and of the nation should be placed ahead of self interest,” Agbayani said in a statement.

He stressed the need for the nation’s leaders to preserve their unity “so that the country can move forward and surmount the challenges under the strong and productive partnership of Speaker De Venecia and President Arroyo.”

Agbayani cited an earlier manifesto of the Northern Luzon Alliance stating its members’ resolve to deal with the issue carefully and professionally and with the interest of the people in mind. Agbayani is a member of the alliance.

Death threats

Joey III said he and his family had received death threats but stressed that he would not be cowed into withdrawing his testimony against Abalos.

“I got one yesterday (Monday). A death threat to me and my family,” De Venecia said, adding that he had hired retired military personnel as bodyguards.

“I’m tired of corruption in government, I’m tired of business as usual,” he told reporters. “The past days I’ve seen how difficult it is to go against the powerful in government.”

He would not say who he suspected was behind the threats, but he said he had implicated powerful people with links to Mrs. Arroyo in the corruption controversy.

Abalos has admitted he was given “golf holidays” in China by ZTE but denied he was offered the services of prostitutes. However, it remains unclear why he was involved in the deal in the first place.

“This is precisely why businessmen abroad do not take us seriously,” he said, referring to the Philippines.

The furor over the broadband deal was triggered by Jarius Bondoc’s column in The STAR about an election official who allegedly brokered for ZTE and received outlandish perks and sexual favors in return.

Rep. Carlos Padilla later said in a privilege speech that it was Abalos who was being alluded to in Bondoc’s column. - Paolo Romero, Marvin Sy, Delon Porcalla, Eva Visperas, and AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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