‘Why did Arroyo not admit ZTE meet sooner?’


MANILA, Philippines–PRESIDENT Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on Thursday continued to draw flak for meeting with ZTE Corp. officials in Shenzhen, China, five months before the $329-million National Broadband Network (NBN) project was awarded to the Chinese telecommunications firm.

Iloilo Vice Gov. Rolex Suplico, whose witness had presented pictures of the First Couple at the Shenzhen Golf Club, said the President committed impeachable offenses when she met secretly with the ZTE officials on Nov. 2, 2006, and withheld this information from the people.

Senators Mar Roxas and Francis Escudero said Ms Arroyo should personally explain the circumstances and the agenda of the meeting. They said that given the corruption scandal surrounding the scuttled NBN-ZTE deal, she could not brush off the meeting as a simple “private, social” activity.

Two ex-members of Ms Arroyo’s Cabinet–former Secretaries Florencio Abad (education) and Teresita Quintos-Deles (peace process)–said the President should come clean on the details of the meeting instead of dismissing its disclosure as a political gimmick.

Never mentioned it before

Suplico sought to counter Malacañang’s statements on Wednesday that Ms Arroyo’s golf game and subsequent lunch with ZTE officials were neither secret nor irregular.

“For one-and-a-half years since Nov. 2, 2006, she never disclosed she went to the ZTE headquarters,” the lawmaker said, adding:

“In her interview with Joe Taruc of dzRH, she said she learned about the flaws of the contract only on the eve of [its] signing. That time, she never mentioned she went to ZTE five months earlier, and now her officials are saying the trip was not secret?”

‘Admission of allegations’

Suplico said the Palace’s confirmation of Ms Arroyo’s visit to the ZTE headquarters was a virtual admission of the charges that she and her husband were involved in the NBN-ZTE deal.

He noted the statement by the lawyer of ex-Commission on Elections Chair Benjamin Abalos that the latter had arranged the golf and lunch meeting:

“This is an admission of the allegations. In court, when there is an admission, there will be no trial anymore. But we know we cannot sue the President unless she is impeached or removed from office.”

Suplico said Ms Arroyo had “engaged in condemnable acts” because she went out of her way to meet with suppliers who later bagged the NBN contract.

He said the President violated her oath of office because she lied to the people, the AntiGraft and Corrupt Practices Act when she gave undue preference to ZTE, and the rules on bidding because no bidding was held for the NBN contract.

Senator Roxas said Ms Arroyo should “directly explain” to the public “the agenda and nature” of her trip to Shenzhen.

“Otherwise, this social encounter may be misconstrued as the reason behind the sudden shift from a build-operate-transfer project to a supply contract with a sovereign guarantee,” Roxas said.

Questions

“It’s sad to know that the President herself had to visit the headquarters of ZTE Corp. in China. Even if you say this is just a ‘social meeting,’ there could not be a different standard for the President on one hand and for lower-ranked government officials on the other,” he said.

For Senator Escudero, the fundamental questions were: “What was really discussed there? What are the circumstances behind the meeting, how did they meet there, and was the decision to award them a contract finalized there?”

Escudero said a president could “not just be brought anywhere to meet people.”

“Government officials have to be above suspicion,” he said.

Roxas said that because Ms Arroyo was the head of state, all her meetings were part of her official functions “and subject to full transparency, unless they involve sensitive matters of national security–which was not the case in the Shenzhen visit.”

Full disclosure

Abad and Deles–who are among the convenors of Former Senior Government Officials, a group that has demanded good governance, among other things, from the President– said a full disclosure by Ms Arroyo would end the speculation about the meeting in Shenzhen.

“She must come forward and say, “I went to the meeting, and this was what was discussed,'” Abad told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

“It’s incumbent on the President to explain what transpired at the meeting rather than dismiss it as a diversionary tactic by the opposition or a mere social meeting.”

Deles agreed: “She herself must answer this. The hide and seek with the people can’t continue. If you want to be able to govern and convince people to make sacrifices amid the rising prices of goods, make yourself trustworthy.”

Abad said the secrecy of the meeting was fanning all sorts of speculations on its “real purpose.”

“At the height of the [NBN-ZTE] controversy, this was never disclosed. It had to take an exposé to force [Malacañang] to admit it. That alone creates speculation in the mind of the public about what happened,” he said. “The fact that it happened raises questions.”

Ground rules

Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, chair of the blue ribbon committee, said on Wednesday the Senate would resume its inquiry into the NBN-ZTE deal within two weeks.

Escudero reminded the three chairs of the joint inquiry–Senators Cayetano, Rodolfo Biazon and Roxas–to agree on the ground rules for the coming hearing in view of the Senate’s pending appeal in the Supreme Court.

The Senate has contested the high court’s ruling that upheld Neri’s right to refuse to answer questions on the President’s role in the NBN-ZTE deal on the grounds of “executive privilege.”

“The [ruling] might have a legal effect on the Senate hearing to be conducted,” Escudero said.

Suplico told the Inquirer in Iloilo City that his witness had little more to say about Ms Arroyo’s meeting with the ZTE officials.

“All major allegations have been admitted. Except for a few details, there is no more to say and prove,” he said.

But he reiterated that his witness was willing to testify in the Senate inquiry although they had yet to receive an invitation.

He expressed the belief that the revelations of his witness would affect the final report of the Senate blue ribbon committee.

“We don’t expect earthquakes and lightning after the exposé. We are only after the truth,” Suplico said.

He also said that contrary to Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s statement, the witness was not lawyer Alex Avisado Jr.

“He’s not JDV (Jose de Venecia) either,” Suplico said.

‘It’s all connected’

Abad said that contrary to the Palace’s claim that the meeting was a mere “social function,” it was “improper” of the President to have met with a supplier like ZTE prior to the awarding of the contract.

“Who will argue with a statement that the President should attract investments? But if you play golf and visit the office of the supplier, that’s another matter,” he said, adding that it gave the impression that Ms Arroyo was favoring one group over another.

“What makes it also improper is that subsequently, the contract was closed,” he said.

On the phone, Deles likewise scoffed at claims that this was an ordinary meeting between Ms Arroyo and ZTE executives.

She said that if Ms Arroyo had let former National Economic and Development Authority chief Romulo Neri “speak” in the Senate inquiry into the NBN-ZTE deal, “and the agents did not abduct [witness Rodolfo] Lozada, this tale would have been believable.”

“These are all connected. It confirms that she’s hiding something that she would not like the public to know,” Deles added.

But Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said he saw nothing wrong with the meeting.

“And pictures can’t tell you anything unethical or unusual because, as reported, it was a social meeting,” Lagman told reporters. “What they discussed there can’t be disclosed by the pictures.”

Cebu Rep. Antonio Cuenco also took up the cudgels for Ms Arroyo: “Every President makes a pitch for foreign investments. In our case today, we have been trying to invite as many interested firms as possible as we are in competition with the whole region for foreign capital.” *(PDI)

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