[PHOTO ATE LEFT - Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez]

MANILA, AUGUST 14, 2009 (PHILIPPINE STAR) By Jess Diaz - A congressman who is one of President Arroyo’s favorite companions in her travels abroad claimed yesterday it was he who paid $15,000 for steaks and lobsters at a Washington restaurant last July 30.

“I was the one who paid for the dinner. I invited the (Arroyo) family and our group, we were more than 60, including Secret Service agents and drivers,” Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez told The STAR.

He said the Washington Post and the New York Post erred in reporting that a female staff member opened a bag full of cash and took out $15,000 to pay for the dinner.

“Actually, my first choice was Morton’s steak house, but since there was no space for us there, we settled for Bobby Van’s. The cost would have easily been at least 20 percent more had there been space at Morton’s,” he said.

He said he saw nothing wrong with the Washington and New York City dinners since “it was their (Arroyos’) wedding anniversary.”

Suarez revealed that there was another dinner in New York City for which the presidential entourage also spent a big sum.

“Perhaps, even that, the papers might discover,” he said.

Questioned by The STAR, he declined to reveal details of the third dinner.

Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said it was Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez, another favorite travel companion of Mrs. Arroyo, who paid for the Le Cirque dinner in New York.

[PHOTO AT LEFT - Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez]

But Romualdez, unlike Suarez, has not spoken up and has avoided reporters. He would not even confirm whether he indeed paid for the controversial Le Cirque dinner.

Another congressman who was with the presidential entourage, Bienvenido Abante Jr. of Manila, said yesterday he did not know who paid for their trip.

“I don’t know who paid for the plane fare, hotel accommodation and other expenses. I did not ask,” he told the Serye Café’ news forum in Quezon City.

He said since he was invited by Malacañang, he assumed that it was the Palace who paid for the trip.

Asked whether his colleagues paid for their expenses, Abante said, “If I did not pay, I supposed they, too, did not pay.”

He said they were billeted at the expensive Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City and at the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel in Washington.

According to newspaper reports, Mrs. Arroyo’s party occupied at least 60 rooms at Waldorf and Willard. A room at Waldorf reportedly costs $950 a night. The President was said to have occupied a $3,500-a-night suite.

Abante urged Mrs. Arroyo to account in detail for all the expenses incurred in her recent US trip and not hide behind her spokesmen and election lawyer.

“After all, she is accountable for this,” he said.

The Washington Post said Mrs. Arroyo’s $15,000 dinner in Washington came hours after her meeting with President Barack Obama and three days before her $20,000 New York banquet.

“Arroyo’s visit to the White House on July 30 didn’t draw much attention, and her dinner in Washington that night got nary a mention. And that’s how it might have stayed – if not for a controversial meal in New York City,” said the newspaper’s “The Reliable Source” column entitled “Heartburn over two big meals.”

No shame

The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) scored anew the “lavish spending” of President Arroyo’s entourage, as well as the “constant evasion and obfuscation” of Palace spokespersons on the issue.

“Have they no shame? This is the second time reports have called attention to what has been perceived as lavish spending on the part of Mrs. Arroyo’s entourage during their US trip,” the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan said in reaction to the Washington Post story.

“Malacañang cannot just dismiss these allegations as agitation-propaganda. The people demand an explanation, some transparency and ­accountability. We cannot blame people for being outraged over these reports,” Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes said.

“We’d hope for some humility and honesty on the part of the president and her spokespersons. We detest the arrogance and utter lack of remorse being shown by this administration. What is happening is simply disgusting. They dined like kings, not once, but twice!” Reyes said.

Ombudsman fact-finding

The Office of the Ombudsman will conduct a fact-finding investigation into the controversial dinners based on a complaint filed by Akbayan party-list Representatives Walden Bello and Rissa Hontiveros-Baraquel.

“We will do a fact-finding investigation,” Assistant Ombudsman Mark Jalandoni told The STAR.

Jalandoni declined to give details.

Bello said that while the President enjoys immunity from criminal suit while in office, he said officials in her entourage should be penalized.

“That our officials wined and dined in one of the most expensive restaurants in the United States shows how disconnected, if not apathetic, they are to the plight of the very people they are supposed to serve,” he said in a statement.

More careful

President Arroyo would likely be more careful in accepting dining invitations even as her lawyer hit the media yesterday for continuing to question the propriety of her having expensive dinners in the US.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, who was among the officials who joined the First Couple in dining at the Le Cirque restaurant, said the dinner was not that expensive as critics would like to point out.

“Move around in Metro Manila in first class restaurants and check who are those giving expensive blow-outs, how much money they’re spending or giving birthday parties so lavish that they spent as much as one half million pesos or one million pesos and criticize. They are all in government,” Ermita told reporters.

When asked what lessons the Palace could have learned in the controversy, he said: “Maybe we must have second thoughts… and we must be more circumspect but I don’t think there was anything wrong with anybody having invited us to such a dinner.”

Mrs. Arroyo’s lawyer, Romulo Macalintal, said moves to charge her for the purportedly extravagant dinner were a waste of taxpayers’ money and government resources and time.

He said those pursuing such charges were being dishonest since they know that Presidents have immunity.

In defending his client, Macalintal also hit the media for continuing to question the morality of Mrs. Arroyo’s presence at the dinner.

“You, the media, could you say that you are moral? Do you believe that you are without fault and accuse the President?” he said in Filipino.

He said if the media really believe in morality, media organizations should not accept political advertisements that could be funded from illegal means.

“Owners of news organizations earn millions because of these political advertisements,” Macalintal said.

The lawyer was late for the news briefing and said he was about to watch a movie with his wife when he got a call that he needed to appear before the media. With Lito Katigbak, Paolo Romero, Katherine Adraneda and Michael Punongbayan

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved