MANILA, May 16, 2008 (STAR) By Marvin Sy -  Malacañang admitted yesterday that President Arroyo was in Shenzhen, China in November 2006 for a “social meeting” with ZTE Corp. officials, but emphasized there was nothing wrong about the visit.

However, the Senate Blue Ribbon committee, instead of coming out with an interim report, said it will re-open the investigation into the national broadband network (NBN) deal in the next two weeks as new witnesses are expected to come out and testify on the President’s knowledge of the anomalous project.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said there was nothing secret about the meeting and that even former Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. was present during the entire visit to Shenzhen.

Ermita said the President went to Shenzhen from Hong Kong after her official trip had concluded for a private and social function involving a game of golf, lunch with ZTE officials and a factory tour.

Mrs. Arroyo visited several provinces in China from Oct. 27, 2006 and ended her official schedule in Hong Kong on Nov. 3.

“I don’t know if that is the headquarters of ZTE. What I know from information I tried to gather was that, okay, so they played golf, they were treated to lunch and then they were asked to tour the place. Now if that was ZTE then so be it,” Ermita said.

Since it was a private, social function, Malacañang’s protocol officials normally did not include this in the schedule of activities provided to the media covering the President. But Palace officials disclosed to the press the First Couple’s visit with their grandchildren to Hong Kong Disneyland.

A supposed new witness in the Senate’s inquiry into the NBN-ZTE deal has released photographs showing Mrs. Arroyo on a golf course in Shenzhen with her husband. Because of the alleged anomalies that have surfaced during the Senate hearings, including reported overpricing and kickbacks, questions have been raised about the propriety of the President’s visit to Shenzhen and her meeting with ZTE officials.

There was no agreement yet with ZTE on the NBN project at the time of the Shenzhen visit.

However, Ermita admitted that Mrs. Arroyo was aware at the time that ZTE Corp. was involved in a broadband project of the government.

He said technical people in the Cabinet pushed for the project to be done on a government-to-government basis in order to ensure transparency.

Ermita said though that it was “very improbable that such a subject matter could have been discussed over a social lunch such as that one (in Shenzhen).”

He said it was possible the ZTE issue was being revived to divert attention away from the issue of Meralco’s high electricity rates.

Adding weight to this presumption, Negros Occidental Rep. Ignacio Arroyo, the President’s brother-in-law, said the issue is “nothing but a pathetic attempt to divert public attention from the shenanigans at Meralco.”

Arroyo described his former House colleague, now Iloilo Vice Gov. Rolex Suplico, as an “attack dog of the Lopezes,” as it was he who brought the new witness to the TV network that the Lopez family owns for an interview.

“Meralco and its billions of pesos in pass-on charges to the public is the issue. We will not be sidetracked by anything more on ZTE because absolutely nothing had been proven in the many NBN hearings conducted by the Senate,” Arroyo insisted.

The brother of First Gentleman Mike Arroyo said Suplico should “put up or shut up,” adding that he “should back his innuendoes with evidence in the proper forum instead of engaging in rumor-mongering and trial by publicity.”

Firming up the case

Blue Ribbon committee chair Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, on the other hand, said one of those in the group had agreed to testify that Mrs. Arroyo played golf with ZTE officials and even visited the Chinese firm’s headquarters in Shenzhen in 2006 while the NBN project was being negotiated.

Cayetano identified the witness as the same person he was trying to convince to testify early on when the NBN hearings resumed in February.

A highly placed source said the new witness could explain why Mrs. Arroyo changed her stand that the NBN project should be under a build-operate-transfer (BOT) scheme to a government-to-government loan agreement.

However, pro-administration Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago jumped the gun and identified the witness as a certain lawyer named either “Alex Aviso” or “Alex Avisado,” who worked for rebel military officers.

Avisado worked for Sen. Panfilo Lacson in the libel case filed by First Gentleman Arroyo and the senator’s men involved in the Kuratong Baleleng case.

He was also a lawyer for former military intelligence agent Vidal Doble, a Lacson witness who testified in the “Hello, Garci” cheating and wiretapping controversy.

Cayetano said Mrs. Arroyo would have a lot of explaining to do now even if the witness did not actually join the meeting inside ZTE headquarters.

“Madame President, were you there? Did you meet with the public officials? Did you meet with the ZTE officials? What did you talk about if you did meet with the ZTE officials? These are some of the questions that she needs to answer before the people,” Cayetano asked.

He said the decision of a new witness to come out was a vindication of the other witnesses who came forward and of what he disclosed earlier that there were people who could give direct testimony as to the role of the President in the NBN project aside from approving it or delegating the approval to her Cabinet secretaries.

Lacson said he did not know the new witness but this might be able to contribute to establishing the complete picture as to the President’s involvement in the anomalous transaction.

However, since Suplico’s witness was not able to attend the meeting inside the ZTE headquarters, “higher officials” might be needed to corroborate him, according to Lacson.

He would not say, however, whether former speaker De Venecia would disclose the details of the conversations at the golf course and at the ZTE office since the Pangasinan representative was supposedly present at the meetings along with Abalos. “I’m not saying it’s De Venecia, I just said let’s call him Joe,” Lacson said.

Cayetano said they were convincing De Venecia to testify since they could not summon him due to inter-parliamentary courtesy. He said the former speaker could corroborate other witnesses who provided the circumstantial evidence against Mrs. Arroyo.

It was unusual for the President, Cayetano pointed out, to meet with only one business company that later became supplier for a project when a Chief Executive would normally face business chambers or groups.

He said they will delay the committee report because of the new witnesses and evidence that might be presented in the coming hearings.

New witness holds the key

But the lawyer of the First Gentleman said a photo showing the First Couple at a golf club in Shenzhen, China would not suffice to prove their involvement in alleged anomalies in the botched broadband deal.

Lawyer Ruy Rondain downplayed the new witness as “another witness of hearsay” and issued a challenge to come out with more concrete evidence.

Rondain likewise stressed that the new witness reportedly provided by Suplico would complicate the investigation being conducted by the Office of the Ombudsman.

He warned that the Ombudsman panel could even cite the new witness in contempt since “he is intervening with the investigation.”

But lawyer Ernesto Francisco Jr., one of the complainants in four of seven NBN-related cases filed against Mr. Arroyo with the Ombudsman, said the new witness holds the key in proving the role of the President in the bribery scandal.

“It (testimony of new witness) confirms what all of us have known all along – that GMA is principal in this case by direct participation and should likewise be charged,” Francisco said in a text message to The STAR.

He said he believes the testimony of the new witness would also “strengthen the case against the First Gentleman and (former elections chair) Benjamin Abalos.”

“I am now looking into how I can use it in the pending Ombudsman case,” the lawyer added.

Meanwhile, the Black and White Movement (BWM) said President Arroyo should come clean, stop lying and reveal everything she knows about the deal.

“We insist that GMA come clean about her participation in the ZTE-NBN deal. To wait until 2010 gives her the time to continue to obfuscate, evade the truth, avoid justice and make the Filipino people look like dimwitted fools,” Leah Navarro, BWM convenor, said.

“Daring the new witness to go to court with his photos and story is an empty challenge. We all know GMA is immune from suit until after her term is over. We decry this act of impropriety – the President meeting with a potential investor without formal pronouncement. This meeting, certainly not a run of the mill business conference, has stripped the presidency of any dignity and has reduced the position to a shady, deal making office,” Navarro said.

Navarro said Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye also lied by claiming that no such golf game even happened because he had no knowledge of the event.

“That doesn’t mean it never happened. A few hours later, the claim was buttressed by an unnamed ZTE official who claimed that no such meeting at ZTE headquarters ever happened at the time,” Navarro said.

The BWM is not alone in its resurgent attack against the President.

A group of medical students has announced the staging of a different kind of “Flores de Mayo” tomorrow to dramatize their demand that the truth behind the ZTE scandal be uncovered.

Members of the League of Health Science Students (LHSS) from various medical schools and other related courses said they will march with flowers along the length of Taft Avenue.

“We want the truth exposed: Who is responsible if the people can’t afford to live in a well-ventilated and decent house, if they can’t afford to eat a decent meal in decent intervals, if they can’t afford to buy medicine whose prices are unregulated, if they can’t afford to pay hospital bills and laboratory fees,” the LHSS said in a statement.

The group said it was very obvious that someone is trying to hide the truth to avoid accountability for their actions. – With Edu Punay, Aurea Calica, Delon Porcalla, Jose Rodel Clapano, Mayen Jaymalin

Senators slam GMA over ZTE By Aurea Calica Friday, May 16, 2008

Senators said yesterday that President Arroyo’s meeting in Shenzhen, China in November 2006 with officials of ZTE Corp., which later bagged the national broadband network (NBN) project with the Philippine government, would be additional proof that she was involved in the controversial deal.

The senators said Malacañang could not just brush aside the “social meeting” of the President with ZTE officials because she did not do the same with other companies that also made a bid for the NBN project that was allegedly brokered by former Commission on Elections chairman Benjamin Abalos.

A new witness has reportedly surfaced with evidence linking Mrs. Arroyo to the controversial NBN-ZTE deal that allegedly involved overpricing and bribery of Filipino officials.

The evidence includes photographs showing the President and First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo at a golf course in Shenzhen, China where ZTE Corp.’s headquarters is based.

Malacañang has confirmed Mrs. Arroyo’s visit to Shenzhen in November 2006 as well as her lunch and golf game with ZTE officials and a tour of the company’s plant.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said there was nothing wrong with the visit of the President since it was just a social visit.

He added that there was nothing secret about the trip and that the NBN project was never discussed during that visit.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and Senators Panfilo Lacson, Manuel Roxas II and Francis Escudero also assailed Mrs. Arroyo’s lack of delicadeza or propriety in going to the headquarters of a foreign company seeking to do business with the government.

“Did she also talk with Arescom, AHI? What we saw was that the contract went to ZTE. Isn’t it that these events speak volumes?” Lacson said.

“If she can actually call a Comelec commissioner and follow up on her votes, what is talking to a proponent of a big contract to her? I think she really awarded the NBN contract (to ZTE in exchange for something). This President really has no sense of propriety,” he added.

Lacson said Mrs. Arroyo was even telling Abalos to pursue the build-operate-transfer scheme for the NBN project being proposed by businessman Jose de Venecia III, son of former Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. and owner of AHI, but changed her mind in the course of negotiations.

Abalos was chairman of Comelec when Mrs. Arroyo won in the 2004 presidential elections. Mrs. Arroyo was accused of cheating her way to victory as borne out by the “Hello, Garci” scandal involving her alleged wiretapped conversations with former Comelec commissioner Virgilio Garcillano.

Pimentel said simply dismissing the meeting with ZTE officials showed Mrs. Arroyo’s “cockeyed view of right and wrong.”

“By itself, there is nothing wrong with the meeting with ZTE but with other facts, it’s one more piece of evidence linking her to the sordid deal,” Pimentel said.

Roxas dared Mrs. Arroyo to address the people and tell the truth about her trip to Shenzhen, China to meet with ZTE officials in November 2006, a few months before the government decided to award the NBN contract to ZTE.

Roxas, one of the co-chairs of the Senate probe into the controversy, told Mrs. Arroyo that all public officials “are bound by delicadeza not to meet or hobnob with prospective suppliers or other interested parties in government projects while contracts are still pending.”

Roxas said Palace executives could not brush aside the meeting simply as a “private social meeting,” especially as the Office of the President is imbued with the highest public interest.

“All official activities of the President are imbued with public interest and subject to full transparency, unless they involve sensitive matters of national security, which was not the case in the Shenzhen visit,” he said.

Escudero said the President’s visit to a company that eventually became embroiled in controversy could not be considered normal.

“The question is, what was discussed? What were the circumstances of the meeting and did this become the reason why the project was approved?” Escudero asked.

Escudero said the senators must study first whether they could re-open the NBN probe pending a Supreme Court case involving Commission on Higher Education chairman Romulo Neri.

The Senate has filed a motion for reconsideration on the SC decision upholding Neri’s invocation of executive privilege on his conversations with Mrs. Arroyo regarding the NBN deal. Neri had testified Abalos offered him a P200-million bribe in exchange for the approval of the project while he was still director general of the National Economic and Development Authority.

Even when told about the bribe, the President allowed the project to proceed according to Neri and another witness, Rodolfo Noel Lozada Jr., who served as consultant on the NBN deal.

“Let us remember that part of the decision of the Supreme Court was the absence of published rules by the committee. This might have a legal effect on the planned hearing and witnesses and some senators might question the session if this is not clarified in a caucus,” Escudero said.

Malacañang said Mrs. Arroyo would not allow herself to be distracted from her responsibilities as the country’s chief executive.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Anthony Golez said that the President is not bothered by the attempt to maliciously revive the ZTE issue.

“The President is focused on her daily duties to make sure that her long-term objective to bring the country to first world status (is realized),” Golez said. – With Marvin Sy

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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