AUGUST 12, 2009 (PHILIPPINE  STAR) Malacañang clarified yesterday that the administration would not apologize for what critics described as the ostentatious dinner President Arroyo and her party had at an expensive restaurant in New York amid warnings that she could face anti-graft charges for the feast.

Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said the controversy was triggered by a blog that speculated on the possible menu during the dinner that was held several hours after Mrs. Arroyo held one-on-one talks with US President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington D.C.

“If it were (dinner) ostentatious, we should really apologize but it really wasn’t ostentatious and we stand by that,” Remonde told a news briefing.

The Palace earlier said Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez hosted the dinner paid the bill.

Remonde said the entourage only ordered a set dinner course common to restaurants around the world.

“We will not glamorize this issue any further. One, it will impolite for the First Couple to inquire where they will be dining and what will food they will given by the one who invited them,” Remonde said.

“It would also be impolite for the First Couple to turn down an invitation graciously made by a distinguished congressman like Martin Romualdez,” he said.

He said the blog speculated what could have been ordered by the entourage and in the process suggested that it could have included expensive champagne and caviar.

“There was soup, salad, the main course, drinks and of course tea or coffee after,” Remonde said last Sunday.

FVR calls for probe of New York dinner

Former President Fidel Ramos said a joint congressional committee should probe the reported $20,000 (about P1 million) dinner spent by President Arroyo and her party in an upscale New York City restaurant.

Ramos said that there is nothing wrong in eating at a restaurant as Mrs. Arroyo and her companions were hungry, but they should not have eaten an expensive meal.

He said a congressional committee should investigate the reported expensive dinner.

“There have been pronouncements of investigations. I hope they push through with these. Even media will be investigated. I hope this will not happen. I hope what they investigate is the incident itself and the causes. A congressional committee should investigate it,” he said.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile defended President Arroyo over the $20,000 lavish dinner at the plush Le Cirque Restaurant in New York City last Aug. 2.

“What is a dinner? I don’t know some people may spend more than that here in this country,” Enrile said.

The functions of the President do not diminish when somebody dies, said Enrile who was referring to the funeral for the later President Corazon Aquino. The dinner in New York happened before President Arroyo returned to the Philippines to attend the wake of Mrs. Aquino.

“I respect Cory, well I think we have to deal with problems individually and the circumstances, not everybody can afford to postpone their lives simply because somebody died. We do not know all the facts and it’s very difficult for us who are not there to make a judgment,” Enrile said,

He said he is not condoning such (lavish dinner). “I do not know how many people were there for it, you may be talking about the totality of their bills,” he added.

Enrile said many people also spend lavishly on events, especially weddings that cost over P1 million pesos.

Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, who described the dinner as lavish and extravagant, said she is accepting the explanation of Malacañang that not a single centavo of taxpayer’s money was spent on it.

Santiago said the explanation appears to be valid because Rep. Romualdez gave the dinner in honor of the First Couple because of their wedding anniversary. Santiago said there should be no reason “to make fuss out of it.”

“It was a mistake in good faith, nobody walks deliberately into trap. It was a trap borne by circumstances. It could have been avoided but it wasn’t, so we should just accept our mistakes. It is true that $20,000 in New York is not very much with the standards of the rich and famous there, but in a developing country like the Philippines, that is a whole big political universe by itself: one million pesos,” Santiago said.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said the bill may not be that big compared to the standards of New York but such is a big money in the Philippines.

Pimentel said the dinner was done “in bad taste” in the sense that, the impression that there was wanton spending in a time of need.” - Paolo Romero, Christina Mendez, Delon Porcalla, Evelyn Macairan, Perseus Echeminada, Jose Rodel Clapano, Mike Frialde

New York dinner host snubs reporters By Delon Porcalla (The Philippine Star) Updated August 12, 2009 12:00 AM

MANILA, Philippines - The congressman who paid the P1-million dinner bill of President Arroyo in New York – Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez – attended yesterday’s session at the House of Representatives, but intentionally evaded the media.

Reporters from television, radio and print went to the session hall as soon as they were informed that the neophyte congressman was around, but only waited in vain – both in the session hall and at the exit/entrance of the south lounge, where lawmakers dine.

Newsmen waved at Romualdez - who was seen talking to Negros Occidental Rep. Ignacio Arroyo, brother-in-law of the President – and the administration congressman merely smiled and waved back, apparently inviting media men to eat at the lounge.

Sensing that the journalists wanted to hear his side on the controversial dinner, Romualdez signified he had no intention to be interviewed, and went directly to the right side of the session hall, where the south lounge was located. He has hidden since.

Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said it was Rep. Romualdez who footed the bill.

Romualdez, who has been Mrs. Arroyo’s favorite in her trips abroad, is the second richest member of the House of Representatives with P477.2 million in assets, according to his 2008 statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth. The richest is Las Piñas Rep. Cynthia Villar, who has more than P1 billion in assets.

Romualdez’s family owns the Journal Group of Companies that publishes the popular tabloid People’s Journal, which could hardly give their employees’ salary on time, according to reports.

An ally of Mrs. Arroyo, Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez, who was also present during the dinner, said Romualdez’s brother invited the First Couple and her group for dinner at the Summer Resort’s Yacht Club but it was full, so they decided to move to Le Cirque.

Suarez, chairman of the House committee on oversight, confirmed the Palace’s claim that it was Romualdez who paid for the dinner. He said Romualdez’s brother Daniel is a well-established architect in New York who resides at the Hamptons.

All the President’s men

Lawmaker-allies of President Arroyo immediately came to the rescue and urged government critics not to politicize the controversial Aug. 2 dinner further, particularly because it was in celebration of the First Couple’s wedding anniversary.

“That was a very special day for the First Couple. There is nothing wrong about it, pinupulitika lang talaga,” said Camiguin Rep. Pedro Romualdo, chairman of the House committee on good government. “Given the chance, I will do what Romualdez did in paying the bills during the dinner.”

Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III, another administration stalwart, said it was not the President’s fault that someone volunteered to pay.

Speaker Prospero Nograles said the lavish dinner in New York is like making a mountain out of a molehill.

“This issue has been talked about and Malacañang have already explained the President’s side. Let’s stop beating a dead horse and let’s move on. I just hope that this issue will not sidetrack the President from accomplishing her socio-economic and infrastructure development programs during the remainder of her term until 2010,” he said.

Nograles also expressed hopes that “this won’t take the gains achieved by our visit to Washington and the fruitful dialogues we conducted with our American counterparts. Let’s put this issue to rest.”

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo was also mum about the issue and pointed to Remonde as the one who would answer questions.

Remonde said while some of her critics have not done anything to help the poor, Mrs. Arroyo has been focused on fighting poverty.

“Its very hypocritical for people to accuse the President of not being in touch with the hunger situation if it is attributed to a person who has done most in this country to address the problem of hunger,” Remonde told a news briefing.

“While some people and most politicians are only paying lip service about the poor, I think this President, on record, can stand as having done most for the poor in terms of pro-poor projects,” he said.


But Malacañang’s explanation on the controversial dinner did not sit well with militant congressmen.

They said the Le Cirque affair was a reflection of President Arroyo’s lifestyle and spending habits, according to a militant congressman, adding that no amount of explanation can justify the almost P1 million “simple dinner.”

“This is not the first time that the President, her family and their allies squandered people’s tax money for lavish out-of-the country trips that include expensive board and lodging,” observed Rep. Joel Maglunsod of Anakpawis, a farmers group.

The party-list lawmaker cited the Dubai trip of Mrs. Arroyo in 2008, where she “occupied a Royal Suite at the 7-star Burj Al Arab Hotel that costs US $10,900 or almost half a million pesos per overnight stay.”

In 2005, First Gentleman Mike Arroyo and several congressmen who watched boxer Manny Pacquiao’s fight with Erik Morales in Las Vegas were billeted at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino with room rates costing as much as $20,000 per night, equivalent to nearly P1 million.

“Presidential spokesperson Cerge Remonde need not be too defensive on this issue. If the people are agitated or angered by this simple dinner as what Malacañang asserts, then the Arroyo government only gets what it deserves,” said Maglunsod.

He said it was immaterial if Romualdez paid the bill. “While the country suffers from hardships, struggles, and without any food on the people’s tables, it is shameful that this administration continue its affluent way of living. It doesn’t matter whether the dinner was paid for by Romualdez or came from the pocket of another Pontius Pilate,” said Maglunsod.

“This government was able to spend such amount of money in one night while not everyone in the country has food to eat. As we all know, ordinary Filipinos, especially wage earners are struggling so hard just to eat three times a day,” he added.

Bacani: Let lightning strike

Emeritus Novaliches Bishop Teodoro Bacani Jr. said President Arroyo should be ashamed because the New York dinner “leaves a bad taste in the mouth especially to those who have nothing to eat.”

Speaking at the Ilustrado Restaurant yesterday, Bacani said he believed that the Arroyo administration would have a hard time getting out of this fix.

“Whatever excuse they would come up with, they would be on the losing end. Even their defense, they could not even be accurate as to who really paid for the dinner. Some said it was (Leyte Rep.) Martin Romualdez, some said it was a Daniel Romualdez, why is that?” he said.

“I don’t think they denied the US$20,000 bill. There is no need for an investigation. It is just a simple investigation. There is a way to check it, just go to Le Cirque and ask how much they paid and how many ate. I think the tip was not included in that amount,” Bacani added.

He said the latest controversy possesses the same characteristics of previous anomalies of the present administration such as confusion, lack of transparency, and they ignore legitimate criticisms.

He urged the people to pray to “remove these people from our presence in whatever way you will. You could select the method. You know what is best for us. If you want, they could be hit by lighting or they could get ill. But they should be removed through non-violent (means). We want to find a true Filipino.”

He declined, however, to identify who should be hit by lighting, saying he was referring to corrupt people. – Evelyn Macairan, Pia Lee-Brago, Paolo Romero

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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