'GMA, Abalos, JDV were waiting for NBN-ZTE commissions'

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 03 2011 08:48 PM | Updated as of Feb 04 2011 04:48 AM

MANILA, Philippines – A son of former House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. has testified that former Commission on Elections chairman Benjamin Abalos pressed officials of Chinese firm Zhing Xing Telecommunications Equipment Inc. (ZTE) to advance commissions on the proposed National Broadband Network (NBN) project during a meeting in Shenzhen, China on December 27, 2006.

Businessman Jose “Joey” de Venecia III was presented by the prosecution in the graft trial of former National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) chief Romulo Neri in relation to allegations that the latter had unlawful monetary interest on the scrapped US$329-million NBN project.

Under direct examination by Prosecutor Omar Sagadal, De Venecia said Abalos told ZTE executives that “the President, the Speaker, and a political party were waiting for this commission."

Asked by Prosecutor to clarify his statement the witness said, “At that time the President was Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Speaker was my father [Jose de Venecia Jr.].”

In an interview after the hearing, he identified the political party was Lakas – then the dominant party headed by his father as president and Arroyo as chairman.

De Venecia said he went to Shenzhen at an invitation from Abalos. He thought that both Neri and his consultant, Engr. Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada, would also be there, although neither showed up.

Hearing Abalos name-dropping Arroyo and his father, De Venecia said he excused himself to the ZTE people and asked the then-Comelec chief to step aside so they can talk quietly.

“I told him, ‘This is wrong. GMA and my father are both highly-regarded in China and it was improper for him to use their names’,” he said.

Abalos reportedly refused to listen and even banged the table with his fist to stress his point.

“I think he [Abalos] was getting impatient. He wanted the commission right away. He told the ZTE officials that, as chairman of the Comelec, he was the most powerful man [in the Philippines] from January until the end of the [2007 mid-term] election period,” de Venecia told the court.

He added he got the impression that Abalos brought him to the meeting to make it appear that they have agreed to be “partners” in the project.

De Venecia’s own firm, Amsterdam Holdings Inc. (AHI) was the first to submit a proposal for the NBN project to the Department of Transportation and Communication then headed by Secretary Leandro Mendoza.

De Venecia admitted that it was his father who advised him to meet Abalos days after AHI submitted its formal proposal to the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC) on December 5, 2006.

Before meeting with Abalos, he said he had already pitched AHI’s offer to Neri and to Lozada, who was introduced by the NEDA chief as a “telecommunications expert.”

He told the court that he met with Abalos at the house of then Speaker de Venecia and found that several people were also present including Leo San Miguel, who was introduced as the technical person of the Abalos group; a General “Torch” dela Torre, who was supposedly with the Philippine National Police computer department; a Ruben Reyes; and, Jimmy Paz who was identified as the chief of staff of Abalos.

Abalos initiative

The meeting was followed by another one the next day, this time at Wack-Wack Golf and Country Club in Mandaluyong where Abalos reportedly asked him “if it was possible for AHI to withdraw its proposal to the DOTC.”

He said the Comelec chairman wanted “to do something else” after his career in government and in light of his few remaining months in office at the poll body.

“I politely turned him down. I even offered him the chairmanship of Amsterdam Holdings if he wants that prestige; or a membership in our board. I tried to explain to him that working in the telecommunications industry is very difficult. He gave no reaction,” de Venecia said.

This was followed by the trip to Shenzhen where he said Abalos started showing his influence and where their relationship deteriorated.

“Every time Chairman Abalos called me for a meeting, I’d go. When he asked me to show up, I showed up. It was a mid-term election (2007) and I did not want to offend him,” de Venecia explained.

He told the Sandiganbayan that Abalos realized that ZTE cannot seize the NBN deal because AHI was the original proponent, having submitted its proposal first.

He also pointed out that AHI’s offer of $200 million was to cover 80% of the country and on a build-operate-and-transfer (BOT) scheme.

On the other hand, he noted that the initial ZTE offer was $262 million and would cover only 30% of the country.

In March 2007, de Venecia said he bumped into Mendoza at his father’s house, and the latter broached the idea of a “conciliatory meeting” between him and Abalos.

The meeting took place again at Wack-Wack and was reportedly attended by Torres, Reyes, Paz, San Miguel, Mendoza, and then-First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo.

He said Abalos started the discussion by saying, “I have forgiven you for your sins.”

However, de Venecia said Arroyo immediately intervened and said, “Mag-withdraw ka na diyan. Project namin yan.”

‘Back off!’

“I was trying to explain but he pointed to me and said ‘Back off!’ Still I explained that my proposal was in accordance with what President Arroyo was asking for. It was at no cost to the government,” the witness said.

After the meeting, he said he revealed the incident to Lozada.

“I don’t remember anymore what he told me, but he was very disgusted. He saw that this [project] was full of corruption. I had a sense that he just wanted to get out of it all,” de Venecia said.

De Venecia does not expect ZTE officials to testify for the prosecution.

“I don’t think so. This is a case of corruption and they would not want to be a part of it,” he told reporters.