MANILA - Malacañang on Thursday defended President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her US entourage's expensive dinners in the US, saying the president was merely a guest in the two dinners, and that, as president, she is entitled to amenities befitting a head of state.
“In their frenzy to score media points at the President’s expense, these critics will go so far as to demean and debase the office of the Presidency itself, not just its current occupant,” said deputy presidential spokesperson Anthony Golez in a press briefing.
“They would now have us believe that the leader of our nation is somehow not good enough to be hosted in the best hotels, or chauffeured around town, whenever he or she travels abroad as the representative of one of the fifteen largest countries in the world," he added.
Asked whether it was proper for Mrs. Arroyo to have accepted the invitations to the lavish dinners, Golez said: “Normally, us Filipinos, when invited, we do not ask the host the food that they will serve, nor the price he will pay for the meal and in terms of the host’s decision where to host the dinner.”
Golez also said the controversy about the lavish dinners was now for the Ombudsman to investigate following the filing on Wednesday of a letter of complaint by Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello.
Bello said in his letter that Mrs. Arroyo could be guilty of indirect bribery for letting private citizens pay for the expensive dinners. She may also be liable for unethical conduct since the code of ethics for public officials says they should lead simple lives.
With the filing of the letter, Golez said the issue would now be resolved based on facts and evidence.
The Palace said Mrs. Arroyo remains focused on poverty alleviation as it labeled the reports about the lavish dinners as "noise generated by critics."
“Whatever monies may have been spent for the appropriately ceremonious conduct of her official trip abroad are but a tiny fraction of the billions of pesos she has committed, and will continue to commit to the alleviation of hunger and the amelioration of poverty in our country,” Golez said.
Probe travel expenses
Meanwhile, two congressmen have vowed to investigate the Office of the President's travel expenses in light of the controversy generated by the expensive dinners.
Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon said a congressional inquiry is in order since public funds may have been used for the lavish dinners at Le Cirque in New York and at Bobby Van's Steakhouse in Washington D.c.
If news reports are correct, the two dinners cost $35,000 or around P1.7 million.
Press Secretary Cerge Remonde had earlier tagged Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez as the one who paid for the alleged $20,000 (around P1 million) dinner at the fancy Le Cirque restaurant.
However, Romualdez has refused to confirm or deny this. His lawyer has also been quoted by a local Leyte newspaper that it was Martin's brother who paid for the dinner at Le Cirque.
Biazon said Malacañang will find it difficult not to respond to inquiries from Congress into the travel expenses of the Office of the President during budget deliberations.
He said he finds it hard to justify the expensive dinners in New York and in Washington D.c. since these were private dinners.
Bayan Muna Rep. Teodoro Casiño said he would ask for a detailed list of travel expenses of the Office of the President in these congressional inquiries.
He also called for a special audit team by the Commission on Audit, which will focus on the expenses of the Office of the President.
Manila Rep. Benny Abante, one of the congressmen who joined the presidential party to the US, said he was not with the presidential entourage in its dinner at Le Cirque in New York nor at Bobby Van's Steakhouse in Washington D.C.
Abante said he does not know how much was his bill at the Waldorf Astoria; what he does know is that he did not use his own money.
He said he supports calls for Malacañang to explain and be transparent about the issue.
Militant group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) said the Palace cannot simply dismiss the criticisms against the lavish dinners as propaganda since there were not just one, but two expensive dinners.
"This is the second time reports have called attention to what has been perceived as lavish spending on the part of Mrs. Arroyo's entourage during their US trip. Malacañang cannot just dismiss these allegations as agitation-propaganda. The people demand an explanation, some transparency and accountability. We cannot blame people for being outraged over these reports," said Bayan secretary general Renato M. Reyes, Jr.
"The Bobby Van's dinner can still be considered excessive spending. Even if there were 65 people in the entourage, at $15,000, this would mean $230 per person. This is still way above normal, even by American standards. By Philippine standards, that's like spending P11,000 per person," he added.
"We'd hope for some humility and honesty on the part of the president and her spokespersons. We detest the arrogance and utter lack of remorse being shown by this administration. What is happening is simply disgusting. They dined like kings, not once, but twice!" Reyes said.
"At this point, people deserve to know the full extent of the spending done by the President's entourage during their stay in the US. This should serve as a negative example for future public officials. No longer should this type of lavish spending be tolerated or covered up," he added. -- with reports from Sheryll Mundo, Willard Cheng, ABS-CBN News