, OCTOBER 11, 2007 (STAR) By Christina Mendez and Paolo Romero - Commission on Higher Education (CHED) officer-in-charge Romulo Neri contradicted yesterday the position of acting Socio Economic Planning Secretary Augusto Santos against revealing details of deliberatins on the $329-million national broadband (NBN) deal.

Neri said meetings of the National Economic Development Authority-Investment Coordination Committee (NEDA-ICC) are public in nature, since they are even posted on the NEDA website.

“Our debates are open within the NEDA-ICC. It’s open, NEDA-ICC decisions are in our website,” Neri told reporters after attending the CHED budget hearing at the Senate yesterday.

Malacañang, however, stood firm in its decision to invoke executive privilege against disclosing the details that led to the NBN contract.

Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Sergio Apostol said Malacañang did not violate any law just because it refused to disclose to the Senate the details of the Cabinet meeting on the government NBN contract with China’s ZTE Corp.

“Executive privilege is in the Constitution, it’s in (the Supreme Court ruling) Senate vs. Ermita so why would we violate that?” Apostol said.

Apostol said even if the senators keep demanding that Malacañang disclose details of the Cabinet meeting, “they have no reason in law for that, except transparency but there is nothing irregular in all these things.”

Apostol pointed out that Cabinet meetings are covered by executive privilege when it comes to policy matters.

He said details of such meetings can only be disclosed when a policy has been formulated and already implemented.

On the Cabinet discussions over the NBN project, Apostol pointed out the project has yet to be finalized and implemented.

Apostol said the senators’ insistence on obtaining copies of minutes or transcripts of the meetings may be used for media exposure.

Neri, meanwhile, clarified there is no denial from NEDA on revealing the documents over the NBN contract.

“I’m not aware of that (denial),” the former NEDA chief said.

Acting Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Augusto Santos refused to submit the documents related to the canceled NBN contract, saying these were confidential and covered by executive privilege.

Santos, who is the acting director general of NEDA, said the minutes of the NEDA-ICC meetings could not be turned over to the Senate because they were confidential.

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.

Senators threatened to slap NEDA officials with contempt for their continuing refusal to turn over the requested documents.

Senate majority leader Francis Pangilinan said the Blue Ribbon committee will compel Santos to produce the controversial documents, and “and if they refuse, we will not hesitate to enforce our rules to ensure compliance.”

“If need be, we will cite NEDA officials in contempt and have them arrested and detained until they comply,” he said.

Pangilinan said Executive Order 464 can not be invoked by Palace officials since it would infringe on the constitutional duty of the Senate to act as check and balance on a wayward executive branch of the government.

Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said the Blue Ribbon Committee should ask Santos anew to produce those papers.

“If he (Santos) refuses without justifiable reasons to do so, he should be cited for contempt and compelled to appear before the committee to explain himself,” he said.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, for his part, said the NEDA “excuse” could be part of a frantic cover up. “They’re hiding anew behind the cloak of executive privilege,” Lacson said.

In a separate meeting sometime in November last year, President Arroyo and Neri concurred the NBN project should be under a build-operate-transfer (BOT) scheme to be funded by the private sector and without any government subsidy.

“At that time, it was clear that the government wanted inter-agency connectivity and an information and communications technology infrastructure development at no cost, and with savings instead, to the national government,” Lacson pointed out.

Lacson said the big question is: “What changed the mind of Mrs. Arroyo?”

He said no less than President Arroyo flew to China “like a thief in the night” to witness the April 21 signing of the $329-million supply contract with ZTE for the NBN undertaking.

Lacson claimed he has copies of the CICT and ICC-Cabinet meetings which were supplied by his sources.

Lacson revealed that in the ICC-Cabinet meeting last March 26, Neri repeatedly raised questions over the economic and project benefits of the NBN project.

Department of Transportation and Communication Undersecretary Lorenzo Formoso III defended the position.

Neri noted that “savings in Internet connection cannot be considered as a benefit given that the government does not have much Internet connection” and “sought clarification on how VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) savings translate into benefits for the government.”

Lacson claimed Neri even went as far as comparing the NBN undertaking to the obsolete and virtually useless “Telepono sa Barangay” project.

He cited excerpts of the CICT transcript that Mrs. Arroyo instructed Neri “to make sure it’s (NBN) BOT.”

“So you have to specify that government broadband is BOT, not government would gonna (sic) spend for it,” Lacson quoted the President as telling CICT chairman Ramon Sales, who in turn answered in the affirmative upon the instruction.

Lacson said there was a clear turnaround from the previous positions taken by Mrs. Arroyo and Neri, who both acceded to the granting of the supply contract to ZTE.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan stressed the need for the Senate to look into the documents that led to the botched NBN deal.

“We need to know if there were laws violated in the processing of the contract and if so, who ordered these officials to violate these laws and why,” he said.

Sen. Rodolfo Biazon said public interest should rise above the so-called executive privilege.

“We are talking about public interest here. The people have the right to know. The right to information about what the government is doing with our taxes. The people have the right to know where their money is going,” Biazon said.

Roxas, for his part, urged NEDA to reconsider its posture, “in the interest of truth and accountability. We must understand that while Cabinet members have a right to invoke executive privilege, this could not be made into a permanent firewall against legitimate probes in aid of legislation.”

Roxas said the Senate will continue pushing for the disclosure of the documents pertaining to the feasibility of the NBN project.

Prized witness

The insistence of the Senate for the full disclosure of the documents and transcripts surrounding the NBN contract will again bring the issue of Executive Order 464 that led to the Supreme Court ruling of Senate vs. Ermita.

Since Mrs. Arroyo canceled the controversial ZTE deal earlier this month, Malacañang officials said there is no more reason for the Senate to continue its hearings into the controversy.

Interior and Local Governments Secretary Ronaldo Puno, as concurrent Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs, pointed out Benjamin Abalos, who was accused of trying to bribe rival proponents and government officials to push for ZTE, has already resigned as chairman of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) while other officials involved in the project are already under investigation by the Office of the Ombudsman.

Apart from the Blue Ribbon committee, the ZTE deal is being probed by the committees on trade and commerce, and national defense and security.

In response to a subpoena for documents from the Senate last Oct. 3, NEDA invoked executive privilege against disclosing the contents of the documents and meetings that led to the NBN contract.

Neri, who ended up being the reluctant witness in the botched NBN deal, denied the gag order and pointed out the NEDA website reveals all NEDA-ICC decisions.

Neri made the statement as he attended the preliminary hearing of CHED’s budget before subcommittee chairman Sen. Edgardo Angara.

The former NEDA chief has been under tight security since last month’s hearing.

At the Senate, Neri was flanked by at least two security men in long–sleeved barong and dark pants, who even followed him to the men’s room.

Neri’s guards also prevented some reporters who wanted to ask him questions about the NBN deal.

It was Neri’s first appearance at the Senate since he testified at a marathon 12-hour hearing last Sept. 27.

Sought by the media after the CHED budget hearing, Neri reluctantly answered some questions, but he was obviously more cautious with his answers.

When asked about his security detail, Neri said Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita provided him with the guards because “they (Malacannang) think I need to be protected, I guess.”

Despite the pressure, Neri said he is not resigning from CHED. “I have no plans of resigning,” he said.

During the hearings last month, Neri testified that he received a P200-million bribe offer from Abalos to clear the NBN deal in favor of ZTE Corp.

Asked whether he will attend the next hearing on Oct. 25, Neri said he has to seek clearance from Malacañang.

Neri maintained he has not changed his position of executive privilege concerning the ZTE-NBN deal.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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