Update 2:13 pm In a comment on her blog, Ellen Tordesillas says the President’s husband arrives back home tomorrow.
Update 1:42 pm Atty. Gabriel Villaroel, lawyer of Abalos, says the ex-Chairman will file damage suits versus Jose de Venecia III; versus Romulo Neri; and also, a perjury suit versus Romulo Neri.
Update 12:57 Surrounded by his family, Benjamin Abalos, introduced by Benhur, speaks: (shrieks of support from loyalists):
Good Afternoon, specially to my townmates from Mandaluyong many barefoot and in slippers, here even with the bad weather. Thank you for coming to this press conference I called to let our countrymen know how I truly feel about issues and controversies involving my honor, my work, and the privacy and tranquility of my family. It’s been a week since I appeared at the Senate, despite counsel of lawyers and friends, expecting they’d be fair and statesmanlike. I was sorely mistaken, not treated fairly; limited to what they wanted to hear; in these few days of consultation of family and friends, I have come to the painful determination to separate my person from the office I hold. Ladies and gentlemen, I have resigned… (screams of outrage from audience) effectively immediately. However, let not my detractors feast on this… I am not admitting guilt and I am not giving up on my determination to clear my name. I am doing this to spare the Comelec. October 20 election will be detached from my problems…. And this proves I am not dangling so-called political debts… or that administration is out to protect me… Forty years ago I entered politics… and in support of the reasons I entered, that’s why I am resigning…. I am doing this to prevent a long drawn-out impeachment process… Thank you to colleagues in government for comfort all these years… Thank you to my family… I am all the more determined to continue my crusade to clear my name and reputation and dispel the lies… The fight isn’t over! (cheering) However long the darkness lasts, there will be a beautiful dawn, we shall meet again, heads raised high, in a new dawn. Thank you.
The Romans had a term for this sort of thing: falling on one’s sword. He spared himself the risk of an impeachment trial and conviction; and he avoided the opportunity to spill the beans on the President. Benhur’s lease on political life, too, has been given a reprieve, which in the end may have been the clincher. Charges will now be in the hands of the (ta-dah!) Ombudsman.
Update 12:49 TV reports a mass going on with 500 supporters at the residence of Chairman Abalos, and he will then make a statement. Abalos looks calm and collected, Benhur Abalos grimacing and frowning.
Update 10:57 am: News vans arrived and began setting up at the House of Representatives this morning, in expectation of a stormy session this afternoon. Congressmen have been trickling in to endorse the impeachment complaint versus Chairman Abalos. Word is, an informal head count by Abalos’s family indicates the proponents of impeachment have the numbers. The Speaker has gone on record releasing members of the House from their loyalty to the party line -turning impeachment into a “conscience vote.” The Chairman has announced he is holding a press conference at noon, and there is talk that rather than face an impeachment, he will resign. Others believe he will, instead, release a bombshell to try to derail the brewing impeachment.
This is, perhaps, the longest text message I’ve ever received, sent by a Palace loyalist. I assume it represents the emerging party line (which has taken them long enough to put together!) and therefore, this message bears close scrutiny concerning those the message absolves and defends and those it condemns:
Neri must be compelled to talk. He’s invoking Exec Priv bec he wants d public think he s protecting GMA. Neri started by telling media he will talk about d bribe offer n d proper forum bec he wants d senate 2 investigate him. at d senate he invoked Exec Priv. Neri s slowly poisoning d mind of d public so dey wud suspek pres s involved. He’s blackmailing admin. 2 protect JDV’s speakership. GMA tried 2 cancel NBN when she met ChinaPres n APEC but he threatened 2 cancel all other future investments f she does. D suspension of all d China supported Agri proj. worth USD 1.3B s just d start. Facts:China appointed ZTE 2 implement d NBN proj. ZTE contracted-Multimedia telephony (4merly owned by JDV3 & sold 2 Ricky Razon n 2003) 2 b their Manila counterpart. JDV3 tried 2 steal it thru Neri, a JDV puppet. Neri, issued a comfort letter 2 JDV3 so he can raise funds & pressure ZTE 2give him d contract instead of Multimedia. When he failed even w/ his father’s power pushing, he decided to go 2 media & opposition. In JDV3’s testimonies he said he went to see ZTE several times but never said he went 2 DOTC 2 push his offer. Abalos s d broker of ZTE n getting China 2 appoint ZTE. Abalos stands to earn P200M frm ZTE. JDV3 thought Abalos can convince ZTE 2 move him what razon got. Razon sought d help of FG 2 stop JDV3. MVP also tried 2get a share of d biz but Razon wont let him. N return, PLDT paid d UP prof P1M 2 make d study dat wil put d NBN-ZTE look bad. PLDT s funding all d bad PR on Razon & giving d opposition senators d bullets 2 kill d NBNZTE. NBN-ZTE s nothing but a fight of greedy pipol but could cause enormous economic loss 4 d country.
The message places the President as the heroine, and Enrique Razon as one of the aggrieved parties, and pits the Presidents versus the Speaker and the Philippines as the victim of Chinese dictation (as for the Chinese government itself, it’s issued diplomatically impeccable, vanilla statements: China closely monitors ZTE probe, though there is speculation the President might cancel her upcoming trip to China: Palace: No word yet on cancellation of Arroyo’s China visit).
I think this long text message suggests the emerging Palace view as to those who are allied on one side (its side), and how it’s lashing out at former allies it now considers on the other side.
Consider this part of the proceedings last Wednesday:
Abalos: I have here copy of letter, my counsel secured… Addressed to Mike Defensor stated it may interest to know that ZTE a reputable firm in China, responded to this undertaking and consequently, Chinese government designated it as NBN “frime” contractor.
Lacson: Mr de Venecia?
JDV3: This is 1st or 2nd time I’ve heard this in 3 days. Why is Abalos involved in NBN? To rebut him, I divested my shares in multimedia telephony, in 2003, bought by Anscor, Ricky Razon… I have documents that show in 2004 supply contract between my former company and ZTE with regards to vendor contract. I don’t need Abalos to lobby for me because I already know ZTE.
Note that JDV3 says he sold out to a group composed of the Sorianos and Ricky Razon (and note the connection to the text message I quoted in its entirety).
Much later in the same hearing, this came out:
Pimentel: I understand you’ve incurred the ire of some business people, because of your stand of privatization of arrastre service?
Neri: There’s a monopoly, I favored allowing Harbor Center to compete, as our containter fees among highest costs in the world for containers…
Pimentel: Among those angry is Ricky Razon?
Neri: Well, met him at reception for Equitorial Guinea president, Speaker’s mother-in-law’s house, Forbes Park, it was there he accosted me, in effect telling me, in effect, you will allow Harbor Center to operate over my dead body.
Those familiar with the inner circle of the President know that Enrique Razon wields great influence. Some have gone as far -and this inference can be drawn from Neri’s testimony- that Razon, whose resume includes interest in container and port management, publishing and printing, etc (he got into publishing, it seems, when the Sorianos sold him the Manila Standard; he then further acquired Today to form The Manila Standard-Today) was influential enough to get Neri removed from the director-generaliship of NEDA because he wanted arrastre services liberalized (Razon has shown his infighting skills in this department in the past).
In other words, according to those claiming to be in the know, it was Neri’s decision on the ports issue that got him moved out of NEDA, and it had nothing to do with ZTE which, after all, Neri ended up signing off on.
One source went as far as saying that as far as JDV3’s testimony that Multimedia Telephony was sold by JDV3 and now owned by Razon, the Sorianos, Server, etc., is true; a source mentioned Nono Ibazeta, now president of Psalm, formerly our ambassador to Iraq as a “padrino” but of what, exactly, was never clear (But as for the connection between the two? Ibazeta was ambassador to Iraq; Razon was appointed by the President a member of the Public-Private Sector Task force on the Reconstruction and Development of Iraq: an investigative reporter would be licking their chops over such a lead) .
And there’s more: Arroyo okayed talks with ZTE on NBN before NEDA review. This compounds the issue.
But the combination of Neri disappointing those expecting him to tell all, and yet, the obvious lack of celebration on the part of the Palace and its partisans, brings up something blogger chizjarkace wrote:
Even after being urged by some senators that yesterday was the day Neri could do the country a great favor by not hiding under the executive privilege, he still insisted that he was only following Ermita’s order.
That was a clear sign of Neri’s loyalty to the administration, but is the administration loyal to him? I don’t think so. In fact Ermita just denied that he was the one who ordered Neri to invoke the privilege. If Neri wasn’t lying about it then Ermita is. Neri should take that as an indication that even how much he shield Malacañang, he is not assured to get the same protection. Who knows, if the controversy becomes even bigger, he might be the next fall guy for the couple in the palace.
As Justice Isagani Cruz opined,
Romulo Neri appears to be the most believable of the three witnesses, considering his clean living image and his magna cum laude academic credentials from UP and the MBA degree from the University of California. I am disappointed, however, that when asked about President Macapagal-Arroyo’s possible involvement in the scandal, he evaded the question and invoked her – not his – ”executive privilege” in obedience to Secretary Eduardo Ermita’s instruction. Some persons may be honest but not necessarily brave.
The Ignatian Perspective pens a spirited defense of Romulo Neri, and encourages him to withstand the tremendous pressures he’s undeniably being subjected to, by all sides. Ricky Carandang, in his blog, says those disappointed with Neri fail to see that what he has revealed, under oath, is damning enough (something also said in a recent Inquirer editorial by the way). As Carandang puts it,
I know many are disappointed at former NEDA Secretary Romulo Neri’s performance at Wednesday’s senate hearing on the ZTE Broadband deal, but I think he said a mouthful…
Despite being informed of the bribe offer, Arroyo eventually approved the ZTE broadband deal.
On its face, the fact that a cabinet level officer reported a bribery attempt in connection with the deal should have been enough cause for Arroyo to stay away from it. It should have also been grounds for Neri to refuse to nominate te ZTE deal. And yet, despite the bribe offer, that’s exactly what they did.
Not only is that improper, that’s illegal.
What should have happened is that Arroyo should have referred the matter to the Ombudsman and out of a sense of propriety, refused to entertain the ZTE proposal. Neri should have either refused to sign the April 20 letter or — if he were somehow being pressured to sign it — resigned.
Now, like some chess maneuver, Benjamin Abalos is being sacrificed as Malacanang circles the wagons around Arroyo.
But what we’ve learned is that Arroyo knew that Abalos was pushing the ZTE deal as early as October. She was also aware that a senior cabinet member was claiming that Abalos attempted to bribe him. In other words, she had knowledge of two illegal acts pertaining to the ZTE deal prior to approving it.
Many people were disappointed that Neri didn’t somehow implicate Arroyo in all this. They suspect, with good reason, that the subsequent conversations that Neri refused to talk about would indicate the extent of her involvement in ZTE. And they would be right. But what people don’t seem to realize is that already, Neri’s testimony has damned his president. And possibly himself as well.
Yesterday, a dramatic headline appeared in the Inquirer: Neri was ready to talk about ZTE. The revelations, which go beyond the usual two-source requirement but lists four sources, are quite astounding:
According to the four sources of the Inquirer, Neri was ready to answer the senators’ questions when Sen. Joker Arroyo intervened. (The sources all declined to speak on the record in deference to the gag rule governing executive sessions.)
Arroyo reportedly made a motion to allow Neri to avail himself of the legal counsel of his choice.
“I think he tried to help” was how a source explained Arroyo’s purported move.
On the phone last night, Arroyo denied that he had intervened….
After Arroyo’s motion, Budget Secretary Rolando “Nonoy” Andaya Jr. entered the members-only Senators’ Lounge, according to the Inquirer sources.
Andaya, who succeeded Neri in the budget department, came in supposedly to act as the latter’s lawyer.
A source said the senators had an argument about the presence of Andaya, who, some insisted, should not be acting as Neri’s lawyer because he was also a member of the Cabinet.
“It’s hard to predict what he (Neri) was going to say, but he was about to talk. I think it’s the presence of Nonoy that stopped him,” one source said…
…Inside the Senators’ Lounge, Neri began to experience chills, and by one observer’s account, it might have been partly because he was afraid.
The sources could not explain how Andaya got into the picture, but he was seen arriving at the Senate a few hours before the senators decided to take Neri to the executive session.
“Basta dumating na lang, umupo doon (He just arrived and sat there),” a source said.
The sources said Andaya told the senators not to press Neri to talk because the latter was sick.
“Then kinalabit na niya si Neri,” a source said…
…The executive session was over in less than 30 minutes.
The story led to angry replies: Joker denies he blocked Neri’s ZTE deal exposé. And to the Palace laying the basis for a possible non-appearance in the future: Palace exec: Neri sore at media for sowing ‘intrigues’. After all, I have nothing more to say on broadband deal–Neri.
(update: Jarius Bondoc has taken an unprecedented step for a columnist, revealing his source and what the source told him; originally, he was going to hold a press conference but instead, the information appeared in his column this morning; because the Star website’s links are wacky, I’m reprinting the column in full):
I understand why Neri couldn’t talk
GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc
Monday, October 1, 2007
I called Romy Neri right after testifying Sept. 18 in that first Senate hearing on the ZTE scam. It was our tenth talk about the issue since Apr. 20, when The STAR ran my first of a series of articles. I pried why he didn’t show up, if he was under any threat of harm, and when he’ll reveal all he knows. From his replies it was clear he was charily weighing the consequences. There’s a time and place for everything, he mused, then asked if what he has narrated to me thus far would “incite another EDSA.” I said I didn’t know, but that I do wish the Senate inquiry would spark a wave of reforms, starting with clean elections. He shared the dream, but doubted if it would come true soon. Our talk eventually led to sacrificing for the sake of the nation. He said Joey de Venecia was brave to implicate big names, adding that if push comes to shove the young whistleblower fortunately has a rich dad to fall back on. “I’m not affluent,” Romy stated the obvious. Neither am I, I reminded him. Whereupon, he shot back: “Oh, but you’re a journalist, you’re supposed to be dedicated to the truth.”
Yes, in this calling our first instinct is to truth and justice, at all costs. So with Romy’s words in mind I must disclose what he has told me. I know I might get him and myself into deep trouble with powerful persons. But that is journalism. Too, in my hierarchy of values, God is first, country next, family and friends third, and myself bottom. Patriotic duty calls.
Romy bared many frightening things when he called me morning of Apr. 20. I had written that the government was rushing to award the ZTE contract the next day in Boao, China, and that the NEDA, which he headed then, had approved the overpriced telecoms supply in a huff. Before I could ask anything, Romy blurted three items in succession: “This deal was the handiwork of Ricky Razon and Comelec chief Benjamin Abalos … I warned President Arroyo about this, and also told Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. … Abalos tried to bribe me P200 million.”
I was stunned, and asked him to start over again by answering some basic questions. Like, how the NEDA got involved in this, and why a build-operate-transfer project suddenly became a negotiated supply purchase. He said “NEDA had to make an evaluation any which way.” Too, the law “allows the President to waive ODA (overseas development assistance) rules in a bilateral or government-to-government agreement.” He stressed that NEDA had no capacity to determine any overpricing, then explained the three steps in any NEDA project review.
Three times Romy repeated he had warned Arroyo about the deal. He told her about the bribe offer, and she allegedly replied “then don’t accept it, but work on the approvals just the same.” He said Arroyo kept blaming Joey for the mess that was then brewing.
The culprits in this deal, he said, are “ZTE Corp., Razon, Abalos - and one more….” When I asked why his NEDA approved the ZTE proposal when he knew all along it was stinky, he said, “GMA was pushing it, and it’s our job to process.” With pain in his voice, Romy said he had almost resigned the day before.
“My life is in your hands,” Romy cautioned towards the end. He said Abalos had wiretapped one of his staff, and Razon had once threatened him at a cocktail party hosted by the Speaker.
Before he hung up, Romy said that my exposé had the potential to mar the administration’s chances in the May election. It was so explosive, he counseled, so I must be very careful. He also said he would fire off a Letter to the Editor to clarify his role, in view of the sensitive info he had just shared.
I expect Romy to get mad at me initially. He already did because of my column last Monday, which his friends said put him in peril for hinting at what he might testify to. I apologized to him Tuesday, explaining that I intended his potential tormentors to realize, for his safety, that some other persons and I know what he knows. Too, that I wanted corroboration of Joey’s testimony.
I also expect Romy to understand in the end. He was feverish and coughing when he testified Wednesday. The media have since praised him for boldly divulging Abalos’s bribe attempt, but also pilloried him for hedging on matters involving higher officials. Some even mocked him for downplaying his role at NEDA as presidential co-chair of major projects, making it look like he wasn’t worth a P200-million payoff to begin with.
But then news reports have it that Romy was ready to bare all during the executive session at 9 p.m., just that he was having chills. I pray I can help him with this. Before the hearing I offered Romy a prayer for fortitude. He said he was more courageous than us. I don’t doubt it.
My column today,Should thuggery trump secrecy? tackles this dramatic story of an “intervention” in the Senate’s executive session (I translated “kalabit” as “nudged,” which may or may not impart the proper imagery). It is a story that suggests those inclined to sympathize or at least show compassion towards Neri, may be on to something, and that the new official line he has nothing more to say, is to prevent his saying anything further. The man didn’t just fold because the pressure was intense; the pressure may have been applied persistently and in a manner that represents an institutional assault on the senate itself. This morning, at least one senator is of a similar view: Lacson: Andaya lawyered for Neri during call for exec meet.
And, bearing in mind what Ignatian Perspective and Ricky Carandang wrote, blogger Slap Happy ties it all together with the reports on the Senate’s Executive Session:
In fact, the mere notion that he cited Executive Privilege was to keep everybody in bated breath over what he has to say. It’s like his way of telling the Senators, “I have something, and boy oh boy will you love this, but wait, they might go after me after this so you have got to assure me safety.”
I think this safety clause should be made before he changes his mind, lest we suddenly read the papers tomorrow and find that he has flown out of the country.
All of this talk had stemmed from Neri’s appearance in an executive meeting of the Senators who were investigating the NBN Deal.
In an article from Inquirer.net, Neri was supposed to start talking had not someone intervened and allowed him to have legal representation for the meeting, and then Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya appeared and said that he was appearing on Neri’s behalf.
This was when they noticed Neri getting the chills or feeling sick or something. The guy must be really scared with the information he holds.
Pretty much like what i have written earlier, this has become more of like a soap opera where the plot thickens and characters with significant issues suddenly appear.
If the rumors are true, and what he indeed knows will blow up in the executive office faces, i think it is our moral duty to protect and impose upon Neri the moral ascendancy to speak up and correct what he sees is wrong.
Since these hearings will resume, yesterday’s Inquirer editorial imparts some advise on how such hearings can be better handled:
The Senate must review its procedures. The lowest point was Richard Gordon acting like a petulant child, insisting on adding a full hour to the proceedings because he craved television time, when even his usually fractious colleagues had decided to go into executive session. Gordon wouldn’t even give the chairmen of the committees, Sen. Alan Cayetano in particular, the basic respect due a chairman. We have seen many moments of political degeneracy in our recent Senates, but Gordon’s was among the most galling debasements of the Senate. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s slur on an entire civilization came quite close in disgracefulness.
The Senate has no apologies to make for seizing on the ZTE-NBN issue and following the money, as investigators of Watergate were once advised. They are doing their job – but so badly as to be incompetent. They must learn to ask proper questions, which requires teamwork, and they must show they know as much as – if not more than – wily executive officials trying to prevent their finding out the truth.
But it goes beyond that: the Senate must not shrink from a confrontation with the Executive, not only on the basis for invoking executive privilege, but on its possible intrusion into the executive session.
And if it’s true that ‘GMA allies ready to sacrifice Abalos’, is a premature feeding frenzy worth it? Once you pick Abalos’ political carcass clean to the bone, then what? Or sustain the pressure, and investigate all the way to the top? Update 12:12 pm: however, the Speaker has gone on record releasing his partymates from party loyalty or discipline on this issue, making their choices on whether to sign on to impeachment or not, a “conscience vote.” Since party discipline is the ultimate line of defense, this suggests the Speaker’s implicitly favoring impeachment. The Speaker’s expected to endorse the impeachment complaint to the Committee on Justice this afternoon or tomorrow, which means it could then gather steam, with congressmen trickling in to sign on.
On another note, in Inquirer Current John Nery clarifies some misreported details; this made me review my liveblogging account and whew, at least he wasn’t referring to my (terse) account:
Estrada: you said, Mystery Man was Atty. Arroyo. When did you first see him?
JDV3: earlier this year, Wack-Wack, it was Atty. Arroyo with Abalos, Jimmy Paz, Quirino de la Torre, Ruben Reyes and Leo San Miguel.
Estrada: What were exact words Atty. Arroyo told you?
“Back off,” says JDV3.
Estrada: “Back off” were exact words? In presence of Abalos, etc? I have a waiter friend there, can you demonstrate how it was done?
JDV3: May I use seatmate as model? (giggle) shoves finger in face of Suplico and yells, “Back off!!”
And also, here, my account seems OK, too:
Santiago: I am not interested in that project. For record China invented civilization in the East, but they also invented corruption that’s why these Chinese like inviting people to golf, etc. As officials we know we’re being invited not for our good looks… On record, let me put it on record: I resent being made party to this squabble! You’re just fighting over kickbacks! You’re wasting Senate time! (Santiago leaves Senate)
11:13 Cayetano: Noted.
Speaking of these liveblogging efforts, please refer to Achieving Happiness who also covered the hearing. And Rasheed Abou-Alsamh points out something we should bear in mind:
It is not that often that people in developing countries get to see non-elected government officials squirm on live television while they are relentlessly grilled by elected representatives of the people. And it is a scene that I have never seen happen in an Arab country.
You know, anything can be liveblogged, check out Jalajala Rizal liveblogging a fiesta.
Meanwhile, Carmen Pedrosa continues to find every which way to keep justifying her recent trip to Burma and thus, her role in coddling the junta.