[PHOTO AT LEFT - Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos reacts as Commission on Higher Education Chairman Romulo Neri testifies at the Senate yesterday. Photo By AFP]

MANILA, SEPTEMBER 27, 2007 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - Saying he found courage in prayer, Commission on Higher Education chairman Romulo Neri confirmed to senators yesterday an attempt by elections chief Benjamin Abalos to bribe him into endorsing the government’s $329-million broadband deal with ZTE Corp. of China.

Neri said the alleged bribe offer took place in January or February during a golf game at the Wack Wack Golf and Country Club when he was director general of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).

Under oath, Neri said he only presumed Abalos meant P200 million when the latter assured him of “200” if NEDA endorsed ZTE’s proposal. “Sec, may 200 ka dito (you have 200 here),” Abalos allegedly told him while they were in a golf cart.

Neri’s account left Abalos visibly stunned, while his son Mandaluyong Mayor Benhur Abalos, who was seated behind him, grimaced in disbelief.

“No amount was put but I guess given the magnitude of the project, it was not P200 or P200,000,” Neri said.

He said that President Arroyo, when informed over the phone of the offer, just told him: “Don’t accept it.” He said he did not know why the President still gave the go-signal for the project.

When pressed to divulge more details of his conversation with Mrs. Arroyo, Neri declined, invoking executive privilege.

Abalos subsequently vehemently denied Neri’s accusations, saying the former NEDA chief was lying under oath.

The Commission on Elections chairman even tried to turn the tables on Neri by accusing him of endorsing the broadband proposal of Amsterdam Holdings Inc. of businessman Jose de Venecia III despite the firm’s questionable financial capability.

“It was only his assumption that it was 200 million,” Abalos said. “What would be my reason to approach him and offer him a bribe if it is a bribe,” he said, describing the accusations against him as “serious.”

Abalos said he had traveled several times to China to play golf with officials of ZTE Corp. in October 2006. But he denied brokering the deal with the Philippine government.

“I believe we were in a golf cart. He was driving, I was seated beside him so I was a bit surprised but since he was our host, I chose to ignore it,” Neri said of the bribery incident.

Neri said he was too shocked to even clarify because he was not used to being offered bribes. “Second is, medyo malaki (It’s quite big),” Neri said to the laughter of people in the gallery.

Neri disclosed the Wack Wack golf game was only one of three meetings he had with Abalos regarding the NBN deal. He said Abalos went to see him at his NEDA office but could not recall exactly what they talked about, and also joined a lunch meeting arranged by the Chinese Embassy with ZTE officials late last year or early this year.

“I’ve really forgotten the dates. I left the meeting before dessert because the ZTE officials were heavy smokers and I could not stand smoke so I left early enough so I don’t know what transpired. Then we had the golf game in Wack Wack,” Neri said.

Neri also said he could not say whether Abalos was indeed brokering for the deal “although he mentioned to me the project a number of times and the clearest indication was when we had lunch with the ZTE people (at) Makati Shangri-La Hotel upon the invitation of the Chinese Embassy.”

Neri stressed that although he personally approved of the NBN project, NEDA did not have the power to choose the supplier for the contract. In this case, Neri said it was the Department of Transportation and Communications, as lead agency, that should decide on the best offer from project proponents.

Neri also declined to elaborate on the President’s stand on the project, saying he would like to protect the confidentiality of the conversations between the Chief Executive and her Cabinet officials. He said this was stated in Executive Order 464, which bans Cabinet officials from attending legislative hearings without the president’s approval.

He said he was not sure if he would keep his job after his testimony, but stressed he would respect “confidentiality” as long as he is with the Cabinet.

“Maybe unless a high crime is committed. I don’t think high crime was committed (in this case),” Neri said.

Despite his earlier apprehensions, Neri said he eventually gave in to a collegial decision to approve the project, which is expected to save P3.6 billion year for the government.

But he said he and his staff couldn’t figure out if the project was indeed overpriced by 100 percent to allow fat commissions for officials involved in the deal.

Neri said he found De Venecia’s presentation impressive but that his endorsement of the proposal did not mean NEDA approval.

“I listened to his presentation, he promised to bring down the cost of telecommunications in this country to about one half. And I was attracted by the figures because PLDT (Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co.) for example made P125 billion worth of revenues last year and Globe (Telecom) made P57 billion,” Neri said.

“And if we could just share these benefits with our people that is about P90 billion benefits to our people, that’s why I wrote a letter endorsing or encouraging Joey de Venecia to proceed with his project but it didn’t mean any NEDA approval,” Neri said.

He also had in mind a scenario in which the profits of existing broadband players would be diluted.

“So I had my own hidden agenda, so to speak, in going along with the project, but of course it went through the NEDA ICC process, the NEDA technical board process and it was positively recommended by the NEDA technical staff for ICC and NEDA board approval,” Neri said. ICC stands for Investment Coordinating Committee.

Neri said the project could be undertaken through international public bidding, build-operate-transfer arrangement, or country-to-country arrangement.

“I guess that there are some advantages to these types of arrangements in the sense that China can provide us loans, 20 year loans at three percent on the dollar with five-year grace, and we estimate that this type of loan effectively gives us a discount of about 25 percent on the present value of the project,” Neri said.

The Makati Business Club, meanwhile, lauded Neri for his “courageous testimony” before the Senate and urged Abalos to step down.

“However, we regret that he invoked executive privilege at a point in his testimony which prevented certain facts from being revealed,” MBC said in a statement.

The Senate Blue Ribbon committee, chaired by Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, led the Senate probe on NBN.

‘Discreet’ probe

Malacañang said yesterday it could reopen its “discreet” investigation of the alleged bribery try in the ZTE deal depending on the outcome of the Senate inquiry into the issue.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita also admitted yesterday that it was he – upon Mrs. Arroyo’s instructions – who conducted the “discreet investigation” that found the bribery allegations “uncorroborated.”

He said he was verbally directed by Mrs. Arroyo earlier this year to investigate discreetly reports of bribery accompanying the deal. He said he was not sure whether the President’s order was prompted by then Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Neri’s squealing on Abalos’ alleged bribery attempt.

He said he then asked Trade Secretary Peter Favila, Finance Secretary Margarito Teves, and Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Manuel Gaite to look into possible bribery cases in other concerned agencies.

Weeks later, the Cabinet officials reported to him that they could not find any evidence of the allegations made by Neri.

“They said that ‘Sir, at this point in time we could not make heads or tails of all these talks of bribery’ that is the reason why there is no corroboration whatsoever as far as charges coming from some people that there were bribes offered to someone from anybody,” Ermita said. He couldn’t say when exactly he began the probe or when it ended.

“Now if there is a need in the future to pursue this, especially as a result of the Senate investigation, then we will pursue it,” Ermita said.

“This issue is developing in the Senate inquiry, then I suppose the President will make a decision for a particular body to conduct an investigation, but as of now, based on the report of the Cabinet that I had, there is nothing so far,” he said.

Ermita also said the Palace is standing by Neri. “We just go by the truth. Whatever the testimony he made, of course, we support him. But we are not making prejudgments since there is still a hearing,” he said.

Meanwhile, Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Sergio Apostol defended Neri’s invoking of executive privilege in refusing to disclose details of his conversation with the President.

“The Palace does not worry over anything that is why the Palace has allowed the Cabinet members to testify,” Apostol said.

He also said Abalos could only be removed through impeachment by Congress but the evidence was not strong.

“He (Abalos) can easily defend himself... there must be corroborating evidence,” Apostol said.

Philippine National Police chief Director General Oscar Calderon said they are not restricting the movement of Neri but are merely providing him security. “It is our obligation to secure our secretaries especially if there is potential trouble,” he said.

Abalos told to step down

Militant lawmakers asked Abalos yesterday to step down or face humiliating impeachment proceedings in Congress or even a criminal case.

“His (Abalos’) impeachment is imminent. He might as well resign now and we really hope that he already prepared his resignation letter. He doesn’t deserve to stay in public office, not even a minute longer,” said lone Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel.

“If convicted, he would face at most 10 years of imprisonment, perpetual disqualification from public office, and possibly, forfeiture of properties,” she said in a statement.

Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo said his leftist colleagues are “willing to endorse” an impeachment complaint against Abalos although a similar complaint has already been filed by Marcos loyalist lawyer Oliver Lozano.

“Bayan Muna is willing to endorse a civilian-initiated impeachment. It must not limit the issues on bribery and must include complaints of alleged electoral fraud in the 2004 and 2007 polls,” he said.

“Although Neri admitted that the President had full knowledge of the bribe offer, the people want to know what Mrs. Arroyo did, if anything, to stop the bribery,” he said.

Teddy Casiño, also of Bayan Muna, said Congress “now has enough basis” to impeach Abalos. “It’s the political will to do it that is now needed. Bayan Muna will ask the minority to prepare such a complaint,” he said.

Rep. Crispin Beltran, for his part, said Abalos should leave the Comelec if he wants to “save himself from further embarrassment and shame.”

Abalos mistress

After trying to fend off accusations of bribery attempts, Abalos also had to parry allegations that he was keeping a mistress.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. confronted Abalos over text messages that he had a lover by whom he had a daughter.

The chairman did not deny knowing one Evelyn Catherine Silagon, “a media member” whom he met when he was still chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority. He denied having a love child by Silagon.

Prior to the start of the hearing 9:30 a.m. yesterday, text messages circulated at the Senate about Abalos’ alleged mistress, a 39-year-old woman from Ozamis City. “They have a daughter (name), now 9 years old,” the text message read. The messages also identified the chairman’s lawyer, Gaby Villareal, as “front” for the affair.

The text messages also included information on certain bank accounts in Bel-Air and Rockwell in Makati City as well as the woman’s four cars. The report also revealed that the woman has a police-driver as an escort. - With Paolo Romero, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Delon Porcalla

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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