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Aug 16

The Explainer: Moderate the Feed

That was the original version of President Arroyo’s message to the Filipino people, upon the death of Cory Aquino. Mercifully, the media did the Palace a favor by editing out the jarring site of the President reacting with relief to finishing her taping.

Just as the Palace rushed the tape out without cleaning it up, so did the President do some rushing on her own –to fly to New York City, leaving the press corps behind, to be there in time for a late dinner at Le Cirque. Except the public never knew she had a dinner-date, until days later when a New York tabloid broke the story.

Was it all a big misunderstanding? That’s what we’ll try to see tonight –so that you can judge our officials’ explanations. I’m Manolo Quezon, the Explainer.

 

I.

 

When she came home on August fifth, from her 80th foreign trip, and her 16th to the United States alone, the President had no idea that within two days, her trip would be engulfed in controversy.

http://opinion.inquirer.net/inquireropinion/editorial/view/20080621-144032/Most-useless-junket

Presidential travels have always been controversial, of course, as this June 21 Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial pointed out. President Arroyo’s travels have been particularly controversial because of the large number of legislators that accompany her.

Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Roberto R. Romulo himself, in a July 31 commentary, said the President only needed to bring five cabinet members, plus herself, for a total of six people, to her White House meeting with Barack Obama.

But she ended up bringing two senators and at least twenty congressmen with her during her last trip, although that’s much fewer than the 100 who originally wanted to go.

But still, at least twenty too many, for as Romulo put it,

The problem with this is that it gives rise to a perception of extravagance and ostentatiousness from a developing country. This additional entourage really has no added value to the President’s delegation for a meeting in the White House. To be precise, they have no role to play. All they do is encumber our embassy staff in Washington with the burden of finding “things” for them to do so that they can justify their own travels to the press and their constituents. Dyahe!!!

And indeed, it’s the size of the president’s party, not where the president herself stayed, and the subsequent bills that they all racked up, that’s caused a public furor.

http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/breakingnews/nation/view/20090813 220105/Not_just_free_meals,_solon_says_of_US_trip

 

As Rep. Bienvenido Abante admitted on August 13, not just their meals, but their accommodations, too, were paid for, not by themselves, but by parties he declined to mention.

But it’s two meals in particular, that have gotten the President into hot water. Without passing value judgments on those meals, let’s look at how the stories broke, and the manner in which our officials tried to explain the circumstances surrounding those meals.

Let’s review the goings-on, in chronological order and not according to the reverse chronology that took place in our headlines.

We all know that on July 30, the President met her American counterpart in the Oval Office. Two cabinet members originally meant to be there, were bumped off at the last minute: Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro was dropped in favor of Global Warming Adviser Heherson Alvarez; while Finance Secretary Margarito Teves was bumped off by presidential factotum Remedios Poblador.

On August 12, a week after Mrs. Arroyo got home, the Washington Post’s Reliable Sources blog published a story saying that a few hours after meeting Barak Obama, the President and a party of sixty five or so people, had dinner in Bobby Van’s steakhouse on 15th St. NorthWest.

And it provided the following details:

The group took over one of the restaurant’s private rooms and dined on lobster, steak and fine wines; at the conclusion of the meal, an unidentified woman opened a handbag stuffed with cash, counted out bills and paid the $15,000 tab — which included a generous tip.

 

The Philippine Embassy declined to comment. One of the first to comment was Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez who said yes, there was such a dinner, on such a date; but he didn’t confirm the $15,000 tab, and he said he couldn’t remember how many they were and was evasive on who paid the bill.

By the next day, August 13,  ABS-CBN had an anonymous source confirming the meal; and then, Congressman Suarez said the Washington Post was wrong, it was he who paid the bill, not a lady with a handbag.

http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/nation/08/14/09/suarez-i-normally-host-pgmas-dinners

He specifically said he asked someone to get the bill, and that he then paid cash.

The day after that, August 14, Congressman Suarez modified his story further. It turns out that a woman did count out the money, to pay the bill, as The Washington Post reported. Suarez clarified that this woman, whom he didn’t name, was a member of the Presidential Management Staff.

In this third version of his steakhouse story, Suarez said what actually happened was that he didn’t want Americans to see him paying for dinner, so what he told the PMS staffer to do was to show him the receipt, at which point, he gave her the money –discreetly.

So in its essential points, the Washington Post story stands –except for who paid the bill. But the Washington steakhouse story came at the heels of a story about dining in New York; and that story in turn, snowballed to epic proportions.

The New York dinner story came out in the tabloid, The New York Post, on August 7.

Although here at home, people first heard about it from blogger-fashionista bryanboy whoTweeted at 8:04 AM  that a friend in New York said, “President Macapagal-Arroyo’s dinner at Le Cirque here in NY cost the taxpayers of the Philippines $15,000!!!”

As it turned out, it wasn’t $15,000 but rather, $20,000. According to the Post’s notorious Page Six gossip column,

 

Arroyo was at Le Cirque the other night with a large entourage enjoying the good life [and] ordered several bottles of very expensive wine, pushing the dinner tab up to $20,000.

 

Beginning August 7, and up to now, the story has gotten complicated as the President’s people, particularly Press Secretary Cerge Remonde, and a big cast of congressmen, tried to respond to deflect criticism from the nearly 1 million peso bill, for a fancy dinner as the country itself was plunged into mourning.

When we return, the media circus over the meal the public heard about first: Le Cirque in New York on July 31st.

 

II.

 

That was a scene from the 1938 film, “Marie Antoinette,” where courtiers mock the wedding anniversary of the Queen.

The story begins on July 31, a few hours after the President was informed Cory Aquino had died, and she’d taped her bungled message to the nation.

Late that evening, the President had what would turn out to be that infamous Le Cirque dinner. It wasn’t officially announced; in fact it wouldn’t become public knowledge until the New York Post’s notorious Page Six gossip page reported it on August 7.

The Press Secretary, Cerge Remonde, on August 8 confirmed they had dinner at Le Cirque when asked to respond to the New York Post story; but knowing that some segments of the public were angry over the President appearing to have enjoyed herself hours after the country had heard of Cory Aquino’s death, at first  he insisted what they had at was “just like any other working dinner.” And emphatically denied the dinner had anything to do with the President’s wedding anniversary.

Remonde even tried to argue that no one had fun, that everyone wolfed down their food in an hour; but Senator Lapid complained the dinner took ages and he was exasperated by all the cutlery and changes in courses.

Also on August 8, Remonde was reported as saying Rep. Martin Romualdez had paid for the Le Cirque dinner.

Later on, From August 8 to 10,  Le Cerge began to modify his story. In showbiz terms, “in fairness,” it has to do as much with the bumbling of the President’s other allies, as Le Cerge’s seemingly infinite capacity to do so on his own.

Remonde said 15-20 people dined with the President; Rep. Suarez later said no, it was more along the lines of 50 people (to bring the per unit cost down?): including American Secret Service agents as among the beneficiaries of the meal, which could lead to those agents being charged criminally or administratively for accepting perks from foreigners while on duty; so since then, it seems everyone’s tried to keep mum on who, exactly, was at the dinner.

Then Remonde’s claim –backed up by Rep. Suarez- that Rep. Martin Romualdez paid for the dinner was challenged when Romualdez’s staff denied it, saying it was the congressman’s brother, Daniel, who paid for dinner –but not before the President’s own son, Rep. Mikey Arroyo, enthusiastically thanked Romualdez for paying.

By August 10, the story was getting hopelessly confused except for one thing: the total spent, reported by the NY Post at $20,000. No one has categorically denied that was the actual amount.

At best we have Remonde remarking, early on, he though it wasn’t that much –but then he didn’t even know who really footed the bill, so obviously he’s not an informed source.

One major source of confusion was the impression the Le Cirque dinner took place on August 2, which would make it a kind of reward for the President’s hectic August 1 schedule.

But we know for sure that it took place on July 31; the problem is, quite a few congressman kept telling the press the dinner they went to was on August 2.

The reason for the confusion is simple: there were other meals. The President’s dining pals inadvertently leaked all the other places the presidential party dined at: Wolfgang’s Steakhouse on Park Avenue (per Rep. Amelita Villarosa) after the St. Patrick’s Mass on August 2; and dinner that evening, also on August 2,  at Bouley’s Restaurant (per Rep. Hermilando Mandanas).

The President’s husband, before she could snatch him away from the clutches of reporters, enthusiastically burbled he intended to take her to an “expensive restaurant” that night –it turns out, with the usual hangers-on.

The result is the President’s own people were the ones to point out the President made time for communal dining on three occasions and not just at Le Cirque, originally portrayed as a working dinner until everyone ended up admitting it was a wedding anniversary dinner –followed by what may be a wedding anniversary lunch and, much more certain, yet another wedding anniversary dinner. None of these meals, until after the fact, were publicized.

The second cause for confusion, besides dates, is this:

It’s a theoretical computation, based on a problem. Based on Le Cirque’s menu, how could you rack up a $20,000 tab?

 

Jejomar Binay and others inadvertently confused this theoretical computation posted on my blog for the actual bill, and some people even decorated it and made it look like an actual bill; and then some reporters ended up citing the computation as fact.

By August 12, however, the media, including the Philippine Daily Inquirer, had clarified that the computation was not the actual bill. But nothing else had been clarified by government.

So when Remonde had denied reports the President dined on caviar and drunk Krug champagne, he wasn’t lying, because reports that she’d done so were based not on a real tab, but a theoretical computation.

But still, the government was stuck with a dinner story that still angered the public. Not least because, just when the media realized it’s mistake, the Washington Post broke the story of the earlier Washington dinner. Which got the public riled up again.

The reason has to do with costs. the Philippine Peso equivalents for each are 720,152.14 for the Washington meal, and 960,202.85 for New York; at 50 persons in Washington and 15-50 persons, depending on the testimony, in New York, that comes out to $300 per head in Washington and to $400 to $1,333 per head in New York City. A range of $300 (14,412.27 Pesos) to $1,333 (64,037.14 Pesos) per head for the two meals.

Finally, by Sunday, Cerge Remonde was able to cite a report from New York Consul-General Cecille Rebong, citing, in turn, a story in the Filipino Reporter.

The story said its writer had contacted Mario Wainer, the maitre d’ of Le Cirque. Wainer said current reports were untrue, indeed, were a lie: and Wainer was right.

If you check the Filipino Reporter story, it was published on August 14, therefore, written on or before then; and it was only on August 14 that the Philippine media sorted out it had been incorrectly reporting my theoretical computation as the actual bill.

In other words, Wainer was responding exactly as Remonde did –by saying the supposed bill couldn’t be real, because, indeed, the bill being alleged as real was not real at all.

But when asked to finally settle the bill, Wainer left the Filipino Reporter writer back where everyone started. As a matter of privacy, Wainer said, he couldn’t divulge the actual bill.

The New York Post story, said Weiner,was false. What does it mean? Since Wainer confirmed the President and party had eaten there? Well. Wainer could have meant a couple of things.

The NY Post said the President had a large entourage. Remonde later said it was 15-20 people, which is only two tables. Suarez later said it was over 50, which is large. So maybe Remonde was telling the truth.

But what about the bill? It could be higher, it could be lower; all the maitre d’ said was, the President ate in the same manner all customers do, by picking from the prix fixe menus.

So we’re back to the original articles.

Fact: there were dinners on July 30 in Washington and July 31 in New York.

Fact: $15,000 for the Washington dinner and $20,000 for the New York dinner. Government claims no public funds were spent, only the personal fortunes of members of the House of Representatives.

But we have not seen, in the eight days and counting since the stories began, any definitive proof of who actually paid. All we have is the distinct possibility there are still more dinners that will be revealed; and that all the meals, plus hotels, were freebies .

For additional details, please visit the August 12 entry my blog:

http://www.quezon.ph/2009/08/12/le-circus-freak/

 

Later tonight, we’ll examine these two dinners and see what they can tell us about the President’s trips in general, and the reliability of official information in particular.

I’m Manolo Quezon, The Explainer.

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