MANILA, DECEMBER 28, 2007 (STAR) By Jess Diaz - For the third consecutive year, President Arroyo in 2007 was able to dodge impeachment for various alleged offenses, ranging from vote rigging in the 2004 presidential election to failing to protect the national interest in the national broadband controversy.

Unlike last year, when Mrs. Arroyo’s critics filed a series of impeachment complaints against her, it was Roel Pulido, a lawyer whose political leanings are unclear, who filed this year’s impeachment petition.

Last Oct. 5, Pulido presented to the House of Representatives a three-page impeachment complaint against the President. The petition had one endorser in Laguna Rep. Edgar San Luis.

Pulido accused Mrs. Arroyo of betraying the public trust by failing to take action against officials whose names were dragged into the controversial $329-million national broadband network (NBN) contract the government awarded to Chinese firm ZTE Corp. on April 21, with then chairman Benjamin Abalos of the Commission on Elections allegedly acting as broker.

The impeachment charge against the President was based on the testimonies of former economic planning secretary Romulo Neri and businessman Jose “Joey” de Venecia III, son of Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr.

According to the Speaker’s son, who had submitted an NBN proposal to the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), Abalos was the broker of the ZTE contract.

He claimed that at one time, Abalos offered him $10 million to dissuade him from pursuing his NBN proposal.

Neri, on the other hand, accused the Comelec chief of offering him P200 million in exchange for endorsing the ZTE-NBN project.

Abalos denied the allegations of both Joey de Venecia and Neri.

Answering questions from senators, Neri said he reported the alleged Abalos bribe offer to Mrs. Arroyo, who supposedly told him not to take it. He clammed up and invoked executive privilege when asked to reveal the other parts of his conversation with the President.

According to STAR columnist Jarius Bondoc, who testified in the Senate hearings and to whom Neri reportedly recounted his conversation with Mrs. Arroyo, the President, after telling the former economic planning secretary to reject the alleged Abalos bribe offer, told him to endorse the ZTE-NBN project anyway.

This is apparently the part of the conversation that Neri refused to reveal in the Senate and on which he claimed executive privilege. Senators have vowed to compel him to talk but have so far failed to do so.

If the President told Neri to endorse the ZTE-NBN deal, which required a $329-million loan from the Chinese government, that would be against the guidelines she herself set for the project in a meeting of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) board in the latter part of last year. Mrs. Arroyo chairs the NEDA board.

In that meeting, she explicitly said the NBN project should not entail any cost on the part of taxpayers, and that it should be undertaken on a BOT (build-operate-transfer) basis.

Some critics of Mrs. Arroyo were waiting for Neri to make a full disclosure of his talks with his Palace boss before deciding whether to file an impeachment complaint against the President, but Pulido jumped the gun on them.

True to their word, opposition congressmen led by Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora did not initiate this year’s impeachment effort.

Having suffered setbacks in 2005 and last year, members of the minority, according to Deputy Minority Leader Roilo Golez, wanted to focus their work on measures that would help the nation sustain its modest economic growth.

The House referred the Pulido complaint to its committee on justice at about 10 p.m. on Oct. 11. The chamber had to interrupt its marathon session on the proposed P1.227-trillion 2008 budget to make the referral.

The decision to send the petition to the justice committee that day was made in Malacañang. In the morning, the President had breakfast with more than 150 House allies, during which they agreed that she be immediately given a one-year impeachment protection by transmitting the Pulido complaint to the committee on justice.

That would also preempt the filing of a more serious complaint during the first congressional recess, which was to begin the next day.

Speaker De Venecia refused to handle the referral since just the day before, he criticized the Pulido petition as “a joke of a complaint” and “tainted with bribery allegations.”

“We’re fooling the people if we transmit this complaint to the justice committee now,” the Speaker said.

By “bribery allegations,” he was referring to claims made by Rep. Crispin Beltran of the party-list group Anakpawis that lawyer Francis Ver, deputy secretary general of Mrs. Arroyo’s Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino (Kampi) party, offered him P2 million to endorse the Pulido complaint.

Beltran claimed Ver approached him before Laguna’s San Luis endorsed the complaint. Ver denied making the offer to Beltran.

Since De Venecia refused to refer the complaint to the justice committee, it was agreed upon in the palace meeting that Deputy Speaker Raul del Mar should handle the referral.

As directed by the President and his House colleagues, Del Mar did the job later that day.

After the Palace meeting, congressmen received cash gifts of P500,000 each. Several of them admitted publicly and privately that they went home with the huge sum, but many refused to make an admission.

Governors who met with Mrs. Arroyo separately on the same day also received P500,000 each. Two of them had confessed to getting the money.

Palace officials denied the money came from the President, who, according to some congressmen who admitted to receiving the funds, was already on the way out of the Malacañang room where the cash gifts were distributed.

But the President knew of the cash distribution, these congressmen claimed. Mrs. Arroyo has not commented on the controversy.

A month after the distribution of the cash gifts, when public interest on the scandal was already waning, out of the blue, Mindoro Occidental Rep. Amelita Villarosa, who is Kampi secretary, admitted that it was their party that was the source of the funds given to congressmen in Malacañang.

Two weeks ago, Villarosa and presidential son and Pampanga Rep. Juan Miguel “Mikey” Arroyo led a 34-member House delegation that accompanied Mrs. Arroyo and First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo on their 10-day trip to France, Spain and London, with a side trip to Kuwait.

Members of the delegation, mostly belonging to Kampi, were chosen by Malacañang.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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