[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo prays before the start of the National Economic Development Authority-Cabinet meeting at Malacañang yesterday.]

MANILA, OCTOBER 10, 2007 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - The National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) has refused to submit documents related to the canceled $329-million national broadband network (NBN) contract between the government and Chinese firm ZTE Corp. subpoenaed by the Senate, saying these were confidential and covered by executive privilege.

In his letter to the Senate Blue Ribbon committee, acting Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Augusto Santos, who is the director general of NEDA, said the minutes of the NEDA-Investment Coordination Committee (ICC) meetings could not be turned over to the Senate because they were confidential.

“The discussions in closed-door Cabinet and NEDA meetings are considered executive privilege and necessarily, the minutes of the said closed-door meetings are also covered by executive privilege,” Santos said.

“Further, the NBN project is not yet a finalized project, and it is therefore premature to release documents prior to the conclusion of all implementing agreements under the framework of an executive agreement,” Santos added.

The NEDA still invoked executive privilege despite the subpoena issued by the Senate signed by Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. and the chairpersons of the three committees investigating the allegedly anomalous deal – Senators Alan Peter Cayetano for the Blue Ribbon committee, Manuel Roxas II for trade and commerce and Rodolfo Biazon for national defense and security.

Cayetano said he decided to suspend hearings until

Oct. 25 so the Blue Ribbon committee technical working group could collate and study the documents to determine whether NEDA, under its former director general Romulo Neri, indeed initially rejected the ZTE deal and that the guidelines earlier set by President Arroyo for the project were not followed when it was subsequently approved.

Roxas said the issue of executive privilege might again be brought before the Supreme Court as Neri likewise invoked it to evade questions on Mrs. Arroyo’s participation in the approval of the ZTE deal.

Cayetano stressed it is important for them to have copies of the documents so they would be guided in questioning the resource persons and thus avoid wasting time.

Aside from the copies of the minutes of the NEDA-ICC meetings relative to the NBN project, also subpoenaed from NEDA were the outline of events of the NBN project, timeline of projects from 2005-2007, historical events regarding the NBN-ZTE project from ICC-Cabinet Committee to NEDA approval, and track record of the government on projects with economic benefits such as the Metro Rail Transit and Light Rail Transit.

The Senate likewise compelled Transportation and Communications Secretary Leandro Mendoza to submit the following documents to the Senate: legal opinion of the Department of Justice on the procurement process, the ratification by the Philippines and China of the executive agreement, the locations of 300 base stations for the NBN project, breakdown of the total communication cost of the government of P4.6 billion, and complete list of any government having an NBN program.

It also tasked Transportation and Communications Assistant Secretary Lorenzo Formoso III to submit the forward obligation authority for the project issued by the Department of Budget and Management to show the country’s capability to pay for the loan from China, the loan agreement between Export-Import Bank of China and the Department of Finance, Commission on Audit reports and the telecommunications office budget from 1996 to the present, and printed copies of Formoso’s power point presentation during a forum at the Ateneo Professional School on June 20, where he disclosed that the contract was lost but reconstituted.

The subpoenas for the documents were sent out last Oct. 3.

Neri testified that Commission on Elections Chairman Benjamin Abalos, who resigned recently, offered him a P200-million bribe in exchange for the approval of the project.

Businessman Jose de Venecia III, son of Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. and major stockholder of Amsterdam Holdings Inc. that lost the NBN project to ZTE, also accused Abalos of offering him $10 million to withdraw his bid for the broadband project.

The young De Venecia said Abalos earned fat commissions in brokering the NBN deal between the government and ZTE.

Neri said he reported the bribery attempt to President Arroyo and was told not to accept the bribe but approve the ZTE deal.

Neri, however, refused to explain why Mrs. Arroyo still went ahead with the deal. He said that as a member of the Cabinet, he would respect the confidentiality of his conversations with Mrs. Arroyo as he did not see any serious crime committed on her part.

Roxas said he consulted lawyers regarding the executive privilege and he was told that it had not “ripened to a so-called justifiable issue” that could be recognized by the Supreme Court.

“But eventually, it will get there (SC). There must be a rejection by the committee or a vote that we reject the invocation (of executive privilege), we see the invocation as improper, or the invocation here deals with matters not subject to what executive privilege can legally or properly be applied to. And so therefore once that’s joined we now go to the Supreme Court,” Roxas said.

“This executive privilege is a very, very complex subject matter. I was in the Cabinet. All the Cabinet members must be free to discuss policy decisions, not be afraid that whatever they say there will be broadcast outside. That’s the essence of executive privilege. But it is one thing to discuss policy, how and what do we do, what’s the best way of going about this, it’s one thing discussing that, it’s another thing to be discussing a bribery attempt. I think that is where the issue will be decided upon, what is covered by, and proper use of, executive privilege,” Roxas said.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved