, FEBRUARY 27, 2008 (STAR) By Aurea Calica -  A certain “FG” was furnished a copy of a letter from former National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) director general Romulo Neri to then Chinese ambassador Li Jinjun regarding the national broadband network (NBN) and cyber education projects.

Neri’s letter, dated March 29, 2007, was addressed to Li Jinjun through Liang Wentao, commercial and economic counselor of the Chinese embassy in Manila, and was received by a certain Chang Lian Yuan, who noted on the right portion of the letter “copy for FG 1/F.”

In the letter, Neri first thanked the Chinese ambassador for his letter dated March 26 expressing clearly the Chinese government’s position on the CyberEd and NBN projects.

During the NEDA board meeting on March 29, Neri said President Arroyo “chaired and ratified” the CyberEd of the Department of Education in accordance with the NEDA-Investment Coordinating Committee approved project amount of P26.481 billion, of which P22.773 billion would be financed through the loan from China.

“We hope that your Ministry of Commerce may expedite the necessary approvals and give utmost priority to this project as quality education for all is of paramount interest to our country,” the letter read.

“We are looking forward to another round of successful bilateral agreements signing on the Preferential Buyer’s Credit for the cyber education project during the next presidential trip to Boao, China this April 19-20,” it added.

Sen. Jamby Madrigal presented the letter during the hearing on the NBN controversy at the Senate yesterday.

She claimed her sources from NEDA gave her the letter in the effort to uncover the truth about the NBN deal.

Madrigal pushed for the issuance of subpoenas to the Chinese embassy officials, as well as those from ZTE Corp., in order to clarify who was the FG furnished a copy of the letter.

“Why is the (Chinese embassy) communicating with or reporting to FG?” she asked.

“This (letter) proves that FG is really meddling and he is on top of the NBN project,” Madrigal said.

She added the letter could also imply “collusion between FG and a foreign nation’s ambassador” on the project.

Madrigal said it would be best to have the Chinese officials and representatives appear before the Senate in order to hear their side.

She warned the Chinese officials could be “declared persona non grata if they would not attend” the hearings.

Principal witnesses Jose “Joey” De Venecia III and former government consultant Rodolfo Lozada Jr. implicated former elections chief Benjamin Abalos and President Arroyo’s husband First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo in the botched telecoms deal, claiming they brokered the contract for ZTE Corp. and overpriced the deal by $130 million.

Lozada earlier testified the Chinese embassy even wrote a letter to then presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor on a “weekend” – or Dec. 2, 2006 – when Abalos wanted to make sure that there would be a loan facility for the NBN project.

Dec. 2, 2006 fell on a Saturday and the letter stated the availability of a loan for the NBN project.

Ruy Rondain, counsel of the First Gentleman, explained a copy of the supposed letter furnished to Mr. Arroyo does not mean involvement in the deal.

Rondain said the authenticity of the document and the circumstances surrounding the letter remain in question.

“I haven’t seen the document to see if it is authentic,” Rondain said, “We still have to find the provenance of who made (the letter).”

Ties remain strong

Despite the harsh remarks made by Philippine officials directed at Chinese diplomats over the botched NBN contract, Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Song Tao said the friendly relations between the two countries will continue to be strengthened and move forward.

“Chinese people always hold friendly sentiments to Philippine people. We firmly believe that the friendly relations between China and Philippines will continue to be strengthened and move forward. This is also the wish and aspiration of Philippine people,” Song said in his speech during the 7th China-Philippine Traditional Cultural Festival at the Rizal Park yesterday.

Song however did not comment on whether the embassy will send any representative to the Senate to clarify the involvement of Chinese officials in the telecoms deal.

A ranking Foreign Affairs official, however, said the threat made by Madrigal to declare Chinese officials “persona non grata” for their failure to appear before the Senate inquiry only created “negative noise.”

“Sen. Madrigal’s call has no weight...It is nothing but negative noise. She should know that is a prerogative of the President. The final say whether to declare the diplomat persona non grata is on the President,” the official said.

The official revealed China might lodge a diplomatic protest if the Senate will insist on making its diplomats appear in a congressional inquiry.

He explained diplomats are exempted from jurisdiction by the host state under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

“We cannot force the (Chinese) embassy to order its economic attaché to attend the Senate hearing because they can invoke their diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention,” the official said.

Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. also asked Lozada if he knew about a letter from the United States embassy expressing concern over the government’s NBN deal with the Chinese firm.

Villar said the communication from US Ambassador Kristie Kenney expressed the US firm’s interest in the NBN project and requested the Philippine government “to carefully review and consider the multiple expressions of interest submitted and manifested in all government projects and that there should be competition and transparency.”

The letter was dated April 20, 2007, or the day before President Arroyo witnessed the signing of the loan agreement between the Philippines and China in Boao, China.

Lozada replied he was aware that a letter was sent to Malacañang because Neri was tasked to address the concerns of the US Embassy and an American firm which later lost the bid for the NBN project.

Lozada claimed he was with Neri during a meeting with US embassy officials.– With Paolo Romero, Pia Lee-Brago

‘GMA did not admit NBN deal flawed’ / GMA EXPLAINS TO CHINA By Marvin Sy Wednesday, February 27, 2008

President Arroyo did not admit that the $329-million national broadband network contract with Chinese firm ZTE Corp. was flawed, Malacañang said yesterday. 

Quoting her interview over radio station dzRH last Saturday, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said Mrs. Arroyo had moved to cancel the project as soon as she learned of “the slightest sign of impropriety attending the deal.”

“Para sa akin, una sa lahat, hindi ko gusto ang katiwalian. Ang taongbayan galit sa katiwalian, galit din ako sa katiwalian,” he quoted Mrs. Arroyo’s interview.

“Kaya itong proyektong ito, oras na mayroong paguusap na anomaliya ay agad kong kinancel, agad agad gumawa ako ng hakbang para kanselahin.”

In the interview, Mrs. Arroyo said that she received a complaint about the deal on the eve of her trip to Boao, China last April and it was too late for her to cancel the deal.

Bunye said Mrs. Arroyo decided to proceed with the signing of the deal “so as not to embarrass the Chinese partners and the Chinese government itself, confident that government would do what was necessary to correct whatever infirmities there might have been.”

“She in fact canceled the deal even before any party could perform on it according to its terms,” he said.

Mrs. Arroyo has ordered an investigation into the deal through the Office of the Ombudsman and the Department of Justice, he added.

Bunye said the critics of Mrs. Arroyo were wrong, especially since the alleged anomalies have yet to be established in the proper forum.

“It is unreasonable to conclude that she was complicit in whatever wrongdoing is alleged to have afflicted the deal. In the first place it has not yet been established by the proper forum that there was a crime committed,” he said.

The lawyer of former elections chairman Benjamin Abalos agreed with Bunye that Mrs. Arroyo did not confirm any anomaly in the canceled NBN project during her radio interview with broadcaster Joe Taruc.

“That was not confirmed by the President,” lawyer Salvador Panelo said. “It does not confirm that there was indeed a bribe.”

Panelo condemned the statements of witnesses Jose de Venecia III and Rodolfo Lozada Jr. that Mrs. Arroyo’s statement had vindicated their testimony against Abalos.

“They’re misleading the people again,” he said.

“They’re twisting the interview of the President to mislead people into thinking that she admitted the bribe offer supposedly made by Chairman Abalos which she did not do.”

Panelo said the almost parallel statements of De Venecia and Lozada should alert people of the alleged conspiracy between the two witnesses.

“We hope the people will not be blind to the apparent connivance between these two people to paint Mr. Abalos in a bad light and make themselves look like whistle-blowers,” he said.

GMA explains to China

In separate interviews yesterday, Bunye and Trade Secretary Peter Favila said the government had to explain to China why the NBN contract was canceled.

“In the radio interview, she said that at first the Chinese did not understand,” Bunye said.

“DTI Secretary Peter Favila had to do a lot of backchanneling with his counterpart. It was after her own subsequent meetings with top Chinese officials that the latter agreed to the cancellation.” Bunye said Mrs. Arroyo was able to cancel the contract before any specific action was taken on either side.

“So the contract never materialized,” he said.

Favila said that he had the difficult task of explaining to the Chinese government Mrs. Arroyo’s decision to cancel the deal.

“First of all, I had to explain to them that China is not the problem. The problem is really here on our side.”

The matter was very sensitive since it could affect relations between China and the Philippines, he added.

Favila said the Chinese government was confused about the various issues coming out from the Philippine side about the deal.

He was able to convince China initially to suspend the deal after making apologies and appeals for understanding, he added.

The Chinese could not understand the decision to cancel the deal, and that only when Mrs. Arroyo met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in September last year that they finally accepted the decision, he added.

Favila said a top Chinese official asked him what was going on in the NBN-ZTE deal after Senate witness Lozada came out.

“In fact, now they are asking me, Secretary, we supported your call to cancel the deal, it has been canceled, how come the issue is not yet settled there?” he said.

“So this year the Chinese official asked why the broadband probe continues. But they are not questioning the probe.”

Senators ask SC to resolve Neri case

Senators called on the Supreme Court yesterday to resolve Commission on Higher Education Chairman Romulo Neri’s petition to void the Senate’s warrant for his arrest.

Sen. Loren Legarda said the SC was expected to heed growing public clamor for it to expeditiously rule on the petition of Neri.

Should the SC decide in favor of the Senate, Neri should “tell everything for the issues to come together and put an end to endless questions and speculations,” she added

Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan said the SC would serve public interest in speedily resolving the petition of a group of lawyers questioning the dismissal of impeachment complaints against Mrs. Arroyo.

“A favorable ruling on the pending petition may yet give life to the constitutional process of holding the President accountable in this latest NBN scandal through a credible impeachment process,” he said.

“A definitive ruling may yet set aside action on the last impeachment complaint and pave the way for the filing of a new complaint involving the ZTE deal even before July.”

Senators Manuel Roxas II and Benigno Aquino III asked the SC to compel NEDA to produce the documents regarding the NBN project so they could see when Mrs. Arroyo came in and modified the decision on the NBN project.

“Since Mrs. Arroyo had admitted there was flaw in the deal, the President could help by instructing the NEDA to release the documents of the NEDA meetings that finally approved this NBN deal shortly before the trip to Boao,” he said.

The SC has set oral argument on Neri’s petition for a temporary restraining order on March 4.

In response, the Senate said it was not for Neri to decide which information could be covered by executive privilege.

The senators would like to find out how the NBN project was undertaken through a loan agreement instead of a build-operate-transfer scheme.

In his petition, Neri said the senators must not force him to appear again at the Senate since he had already testified on what he knew about the NBN project.

He had to withhold details of his conversations with Mrs. Arroyo because they were confidential and protected by executive privilege, he added. – with Rainier Allan Ronda, Aurea Calica

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved