Neri doesn’t confirm, deny P200-M bribe

He says it’s DOTC which should answer concerns By Michael Lim Ubac, Christine Avendaño
Last updated 02:09am (Mla time) 09/06/2007
MANILA, Philippines — Former Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Romulo Neri Wednesday refused to confirm or deny that he was offered a P200-million bribe to support the controversial national broadband network (NBN) project that Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE Corp. won.


“I don’t know. I cannot talk about it right now,” he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, pointing out that he could not comment “on a speculative issue.”


But Neri said he would talk when properly summoned by Congress.


Earlier, in an interview Wednesday morning on radio dzBB, host Arnold Clavio suggested he could have retired and gone on a cruise if he had accepted the alleged P200-million bribe, to which Neri replied: “I can’t do that. It will be in my conscience and I believe in bad karma.”


In the dzBB interview, Neri also said, when asked on the supposed bribery: “It’s really difficult for me to say yes or no. It’s difficult to prove either way.”


Iloilo Vice Gov. Rolex Suplico said he was considering getting the testimony of Neri to support an impeachment complaint he had threatened to file against Commission on Elections Chair Benjamin Abalos over Abalos’ supposed role in the deal.


The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) board, presided over by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself, approved the NBN project, Neri told the Inquirer.


“The NEDA approved the broadband project and Cyber Education Project [CEP] during the first quarter of 2007,” said Neri, now the head of the Commission on Higher Education.


But Neri said Ms Arroyo did not choose the ZTE to implement the NBN project. That power was exercised by Transportation and Communication Secretary Leandro Mendoza.


Neri said the NEDA board only approved the “policy” of setting up broadband and cyber-education projects.


Neri said if called to a congressional probe, he would be covered by Ms Arroyo’s Executive Order No. 464 requiring executive department officials to get her permission before attending a legislative inquiry.


Neri told the Inquirer that he did see Chinese officials in a “meeting arranged by embassy officials.” But he could not recall when it took place.


“At least once. I forgot when. I met with them, with Chinese officials.”


“Wag na muna (Not now),” he said, when asked to disclose the issues discussed at the meeting.


“I clarified that this is the position of government at the time — no guarantee, no loan. It was shown in the NEDA board minutes.”


DOTC should answer


Asked why the deal with ZTE carried a sovereign guarantee for a loan instead of not paying even one yuan through a build-operate-transfer scheme, he said: “It’s the DOTC (Department of Transportation and Communications) that should answer.”


He said an “American ambassador” and losing bidders also complained to him but he told them to “go back to the DOTC,” which should “address your concerns because we (NEDA board) don’t choose suppliers.”


Shortly after the Philippine government and the ZTE signed the deal, US Ambassador Kristie Kenney had been quoted as deploring the “lack of transparency” in the deal.


The NBN contract was signed by Mendoza and Yu Yong, ZTE vice president, on April 21 in ceremonies witnessed by Ms Arroyo. Shortly after, the Philippine copy of the contract was stolen.


On the same day, Trade Secretary Peter Favila signed with Chinese authorities a $460-million deal to build a satellite-based backbone for the CEP on behalf of the Department of Education.


Both agreements were signed in Hainan, China.


Malacañang rejected calls for the cancellation of the $329-million contract with China’s ZTE Corp. for the project.


“Definitely, there is no order to discontinue [the project] just because of the uproar,” Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said at his weekly news conference.


Leaders in both Houses of Congress have called for the cancellation of the NBN contract, claiming that it was attended with irregularities.


Malacañang is leaving it to the courts to decide whether there was any irregularity in the deal.


Ermita said the DOTC was asked to “justify itself” before the Supreme Court and the Office of the Ombudsman which are now looking into allegations of bribery in the brokering of the project.


Suplico has asked the Supreme Court to nullify the NBN.


An opposition congressman has filed a case against Mendoza and two assistant secretaries in the Office of the Ombudsman for allegedly entering into a grossly disadvantageous broadband deal with ZTE.


Speaker wants deal scrapped


Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. Wednesday joined Senate President Manuel Villar in calling for the scrapping of the ZTE contract.


De Venecia said he earlier maintained his silence because of the involvement of his son and namesake Jose III in the controversy as one of the losing bidders for the NBN project.


“Whether (the project) is superior or not is not for me to say because of delicadeza although in principle I am in favor that it be cancelled as pointed out by Senate President Villar in an earlier announcement,” De Venecia said.


Villar on Tuesday called for the cancellation of the broadband deal because it entailed a loan and because many of its features have yet to be explained by members of the administration directly involved in the agreement.


The NBN project seeks to establish a seamless connection of landline, cellular and Internet services among all government agencies and offices.


A group of lawmakers in the House is preparing to file an impeachment case against Abalos for allegedly brokering the deal on behalf of ZTE and trying to bribe an executive of a rival firm to drop its bid for the project.


Abalos has denied any wrongdoing.


Satisfied with Mendoza


Ermita said there was no reason for the Palace to investigate allegations of bribery because the matter was already with the high court and the Ombudsman.


“The President is satisfied that the primary secretary (Mendoza) has informed her that these things are to be inquired into by the Ombudsman and the Supreme Court and she doesn’t have to believe all the allegations coming out in mass media,” the executive secretary said.


As it is now, the public discussions on the NBN deal are just being manipulated, according to Ermita.


“We must be able to pinpoint the responsibility if there are irregularities as alleged. So let the court determine that,” he said.


Ms Arroyo, he also said, was “confident that the Cabinet officials handling this particular undertaking are up to the challenge of handling it.”


“The President definitely has confidence in her Cabinet, especially Larry Mendoza,” Ermita said.


In Senate Resolution No. 127, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. urged the blue ribbon committee and the committee on trade and commerce to look into the overprice of the NBN deal and Abalos’ “highly suspicious and blatantly irregular, if not unlawful” lobbying in behalf of ZTE before, during and after the elections. With reports from Norman Bordadora and Gil C. Cabacungan Jr. and Tony Bergonia



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