(STAR) By Paolo Romero - As former socio-economic planning secretary Romulo Neri was taking a break from the grueling Senate investigation Wednesday into the broadband deal, he received a phone call from a top Malacañang official telling him that he was being “watched.”

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita admitted he called up Neri, who happened to be in the comfort room during lunch break at the Senate hearing.

“He (Neri) was in the men’s room somewhere at the Senate when I called. I told him that we are encouraging him and to tell him that he was doing well, to remind him that we are supporting him and we were watching him on TV,” Ermita said.

According to Ermita, they were even “rooting” for Neri, “especially when we saw that (Neri) was feeling the pressure (from the senators).”

Ermita denied reminding Neri to invoke executive privilege if he gets cornered by the senators.

Before the lunch break, Neri had already invoked executive privilege when he was asked about the details of his conversation with President Arroyo regarding the NBN deal.

Ermita said many Cabinet members, including himself, attended the second hearing as an expression of support for the invited officials.

Ermita revealed Cabinet officials invited to appear before the Senate were already briefed on what issues should be covered by executive privilege.

“We told our Cabinet officials that there is some recourse if they feel that they are not comfortable in disclosing sensitive matters,” he said.

Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Sergio Apostol said Neri can not be compelled by the Senate to reveal the details of his conversations with President Arroyo on the $329-million NBN deal.

Apostol said any conversation between President Arroyo and her Cabinet members is considered privileged communication which should not be disclosed in any forum.

Apostol made the assertion as the Senate deliberated on whether to compel Neri, now chairman of the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), to reveal the details of his conversation with Mrs. Arroyo over the NBN deal.

Neri was asked for the President’s reaction after he reported to her the alleged bribe attempt by Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Benjamin Abalos for a favorable action on the project proposal.

At the time the bribe attempt was made, Neri was director general of NEDA, which has the mandate to review all bids and proposals for government projects.

“This is a conversation between a Cabinet member and the President. There is no need to cite basis (for invoking executive privilege),” Apostol said.

Apostol pointed out the Supreme Court ruling on Senate vs. Ermita was the basis for invoking executive privilege during congressional hearings and which Neri had every right to invoke.

But several senators expressed different interpretations of the Supreme Court ruling and insisted that they can force Neri to talk.

“He cannot be compelled and if they do so then Secretary Neri or the Senate may bring the matter to the Supreme Court,” Apostol said.

“Because the (SC) decision there is not clear cut. It says the Senate may bring the matter to the Supreme Court if the executive refuses to answer,” he added.

Apostol said the subject matter of conversations with the President is immaterial since it is all covered by executive privilege.

He said the Senate should expect the same action in its inquiry into the “Hello, Garci” wiretap recordings scandal.

“Remember there are two things, the other one is the military. The military is also covered by Senate vs. Ermita case and (it is covered by) executive privilege,” Apostol said.

The Senate has invited a number of active and retired military officers as well as Cabinet members to attend the wiretapping hearings.

So far, no one among the prominent figures invited has attended the hearings, forcing the Senate to issue subpoenas to force them to appear.

Senators also linked Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. to the controversy for reportedly endorsing the NBN project proposal of his son.

Sen. Juan Ponce-Enrile cited a letter dated Dec. 4, 2006 from Ernesto Garcia saying “the Speaker’s office instructed” him to forward the materials to Transportation and Communications Secretary Leandro Mendoza.

Garcia is said to be the managing director of Amsterdam Holdings Inc. (AHI), the firm of Jose “Joey” de Venecia III which lost the bid for the NBN contract to China’s ZTE Corp.

Enrile said the material referred to would show that De Venecia is trying to intervene for his son Joey.

Sen. Joker Arroyo, for his part, said he could not comprehend why Neri had to encourage De Venecia III to compete for the project when the NEDA technical staff had found that it would be cheaper if the government would create its own NBN to be financed by a loan from China which has lower interest rates.

Arroyo said a check on the background of AHI would show it might not be capable to undertake the project because of lack of capital.

Arroyo said Neri’s letter to AHI endorsing its objectives was “hermaphroditic” since it did mention De Venecia III was out of bounds and he could not participate, being a private proponent.

He said Neri’s “indecision” over the issue has created problems for the NEDA.

Neri replied that he merely endorsed the AHI proposal since it appeared to be at no cost to the government.

He said it would be up to the DOTC to assess whether the proposal was viable. -Marvin Sy, Aurea Calica

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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