, FEBRUARY 14, 2007 (STAR) By Rainier Allan Ronda - Anti-corruption groups are preparing criminal charges against First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo and ranking government officials implicated in the alleged kidnapping of Rodolfo Noel Lozada Jr. and in the anomalous national broadband network (NBN) deal with ZTE Corp. of China.

The groups – Kilosbayan, Bantay Katarungan and Bantayog ng mga Bayani – are also willing to provide legal assistance to Lozada, who may face a P200-million libel suit from former elections chief Benjamin Abalos whom he accused of helping ZTE Corp. bag the NBN deal.

Former Senate president Jovito Salonga, chairman emeritus of the three groups, said the testimonies of Lozada before the Senate last Feb. 11 were enough to warrant the filing of criminal charges against Mr. Arroyo, Abalos, Environment Secretary Lito Atienza, and acting Commission on Higher Education Chairman Romulo Neri.

Salonga said Lozada’s testimony may even buttress a new impeachment case against President Arroyo.

Salonga said Mrs. Arroyo may also be criminally charged for certain acts she did in connection with the NBN project, like her hasty flight to Boao in China to witness the signing of the NBN deal with ZTE Corp. by Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza and ZTE vice president Yu Yong in April 2007.

“She need not have done that because it’s not a government-to-government transaction,” Salonga said at a press conference at the Kilosbayan office in Mandaluyong City.

“You will remember that she was the one who went to China that time her husband was sick. This was not a government-to-government transaction, which ordinarily the President can intervene in. This was a transaction with a private company, ZTE,” Salonga said.

The groups also demanded that Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez inhibit herself from the issue “on account of her perceived partiality in favor of President (Arroyo) and her subordinates or appointees” and “for the sake of credibility and the institution she represents.”

With Salonga at the press briefing were Kilosbayan president and chairman Rafael Alunan, Bantay Katarungan president and chairman and former UP College of law Dean Raul Pangalangan and Bantay Katarungan executive director Emilio Capulong Jr.

“We urge the prompt prosecution of persons, in and out of government, who are culpable or who may have committed illegal acts based on the relevant documentary evidence and on the transcripts we have obtained from the Senate,” the three groups said in a joint statement, copies of which were distributed to media during the press conference.

The three groups also expressed admiration for Lozada’s “refreshing demonstration of courage.”

“Despite the grave risks before him, and with an army of guardian angels by his side, Lozada forthrightly admitted to wrongdoing while recounting the perfidies of First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, former Comelec chairman Benjamin Abalos and their minions,” the groups’ joint statement read.

“Truth has, for a long time now, been in short supply from the government. Yet, amidst the daily diet of lies that the people have been subjected to by its governors, truth shone like a bright ray of hope that could not be bent even by the most devious political characters the country has had to endure,” the statement said.

“Courage is sometimes frail as hope is frail, striving and faith is the only strength it knows. But as Aristotle said, ‘courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.’ It is the virtue that makes all other virtues possible,” the groups pointed out.

“Lozada, who has had an epiphany, is showing us the way to break free,” their joint statement read.

Doubtful objectivity

Salonga said the Ombudsman’s track record has cast doubts on her objectivity in the NBN issue.

Capulong said it was Kilosbayan and Bantay Katarungan which filed a graft case against Abalos and other officials in connection with the questionable purchase of P1.3 billion worth of automated poll counting machines from the Mega Pacific consortium in 2004.

The Supreme Court voided the purchase contract, citing violation of government bidding laws.

“We filed a case with the Ombudsman and despite ample evidence showing the culpability of then Comelec chairman Abalos and company, they were all exonerated and this is one reason why we think she would be in no position to look objectively at the present culpability of these parties we would like prosecuted,” Capulong said.

“Judging from her track record, she is unable to act objectively on cases which are brought to her,” Capulong added.

Pangalangan, for his part, pointed out that the SC had even “directed” the Ombudsman to commence its investigation and prosecution of government officials behind the anomalous ACM purchase deal.

“The Ombudsman did not do anything. In fact, Sen. Salonga had to go back to the court to ask the court to compel the Ombudsman to do so. The Ombudsman, in fact, complied grudgingly. In fact, until today, we do not have any prosecution of the big fish in that case,” Pangalangan said.

“Just by looking at the track record of a fully documented case, I think it is justified for Kilosbayan, Bantay Katarungan and Bantayog to ask the Ombudsman not to be involved in this case,” he said.

“She no longer is capable of the neutrality and impartiality called for in the performance of her duties,” he added.

He also said that Lozada’s credibility has not diminished despite his admission of involvement in some irregular transactions as president of the state-run Philippine Forest Corp.

“In fact, to me, the fact that he himself admits to some of his faults and he has confessed to a good number of them upon withering cross-examination by some of the senators I think shows that he is actually speaking the truth. Even the truth that will hurt him,” Pangalangan said.

“For me, that enhances his credibility rather than destroys it,” he added.

Neri pressed to tell all

Former Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. joined calls for Neri to come out and say his piece on the NBN controversy.

“Go present yourself to the Senate if you have nothing to fear and nothing to hide,” De Venecia said in a privilege speech Tuesday night. “Tell our people the truth because the truth shall set us free.”

Neri, who used to be the House’s budget and economic planning chief, said earlier he would testify again at the Senate if ordered to by the Supreme Court. Neri is contesting the Senate’s arrest order on him before the SC.

Neri drew the Senate’s wrath for his refusal to divulge details of his conversation with Mrs. Arroyo shortly after he told her of Abalos’ P200-million bribe offer in exchange for Neri’s endorsement of the ZTE deal.

In his speech, De Venecia also said the involvement of Malacañang in the NBN mess is getting clearer as the issue unravels.

“The emerging picture is putting Malacañang closer to the center of the firestorm. Madam President, if you are listening, I pray to God that you are not involved, that Malacañang’s sons are not involved,” he said.

The House adjourned right after De Venecia’s speech, apparently to avoid a chaotic plenary encounter between his supporters and pro-administration congressmen.

Secret meeting

Lozada had arranged a meeting in December between Neri and opposition Senators Panfilo Lacson and Jamby Madrigal at the Duets Bistro on Benavidez St. in Makati City, during which the former socioeconomic secretary revealed his knowledge of irregularities in the NBN deal and his frustrations with the government.

A source said that Neri, over bottles of red wine and food, related his disappointment with the way the economy was being “enslaved by intertwined greedy interests between the monopolists who profited immensely at regulated industries, and the Arroyos who profited materially from the situation.”

“It’s a pity the President (Arroyo) is concerned only with survival, and does not care about leaving any legacy, let alone initiating socio-economic reforms. She profits immensely from the monopolists, and they keep her in the saddle,” a source quoted Neri as saying.

Lacson and Madrigal reportedly tried to convince Neri to attend the Senate inquiries but to no avail.

At one point, Neri said the business sector opted to take a “mind your own business” stance purportedly to maintain the country’s stability.

Madrigal declined to confirm the meeting. Lacson earlier said he met Lozada last year and early this year but he did not say if Neri was with them.

Meanwhile, Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos, a known supporter of the Arroyo administration, urged the President to sack her officials implicated in the NBN scandal.

“This is the better alternative since I don’t think her resignation will be a good solution,” Pueblos told The STAR. He did not specify who among the officials should be dismissed. - With Christina Mendez, Edu Punay, Jess Diaz, and Rudy Santos

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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