MANILA - Filipino taxpayers are footing the bill for the recent US trip of more than 28 congressmen who accompanied President Gloria Arroyo in her visit to Washington, DC and New York last month.
Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante admitted Monday that he will be reimbursing more than P300,000 to Malacañang after he was included in Mrs. Arroyo's official entourage to the US. He said he did not pay for his plane fare, hotel accommodations and other expenses since he was only informed that he would be part of the entourage a week before the trip.
"I was informed one week before the trip that I was going and that the visas were being worked on. Two days before the travel, we were advised that it was all OK. All set na yung travel namin," he told radio dzMM.
Abante said the trip was his first time to be part of Mrs. Arroyo's entourage. He said that while he did not ask who would pay for the trip, he also knew that each congressman had a P1 million travel budget alotted by Congress every year.
"Malacañang took care of the visas. They didn't tell us that it was for free. I just told the truth that we didn't pay anything. We do have a fund and since it's a working visit, a state visit, something really good came off it. Now if House Speaker Prospero Nograles said that we should refund, then I will comply. But no one told us, Congress or Malacañang, that it was free. It's just right that we share the burden of the trip," he said.
Asked if taxpayers' money would be used to reimburse his expenses, he said: "Well, that's true in a way but that has been budgeted. Secondly, we didn't go sightseeing. The only time we actually went sightseeing was on our last day in New York. That was our only time for rest. We had counterpart meetings and briefings. We gave out awards to the principal authors of the Filipino Veterans compensation package. We also talked to some people on what is happening in the country. It's really worth the trip. Ito'y nakaganda sa Pilipinas at naging wholesome naman ang treatment ng US politicians sa amin."
He said they were billeted at the expensive Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City and at the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel in Washington. More than 28 congressman accompanied Mrs. Arroyo to the US last month where she paid a courtesy call to US President Barack Obama.
Earlier reports said Mrs. Arroyo’s party occupied at least 60 rooms at Waldorf and Willard. A room at Waldorf reportedly costs $950 a night. The President was said to have occupied a $3,500-a-night suite.
The trip has been marked by controversy after two US newspapers reported on Mrs. Arroyo's lavish dinners; first, a $15,000 night out at Bobby Van's Steakhouse in Washington DC and a $20,000 dinner at Le Cirque in Manhattan.
Palace spokesman said Congressmen Danilo Suarez (Quezon) and Martin Romualdez (Leyte) paid for the dinners.
'Fly now, pay later' scheme
Bayan Muna party-list representative Teodoro Casiño, meanwhile, said Nograles's "fly now, pay later" scheme was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard.
He said that before a congressman leaves the country, he already knows who would pay for his plane ticket and hotel accommodations. He added that the congressmen who joined Mrs. Arroyo in her US trip already knew that Malacañang would pay for everything.
He also said the belated payment would not affect the congressmen directly since it would be deducted either from their salaries or their P1 million yearly travel allowance. "In the end, it's still the taxpayers who pay," he said.
He added that the recent explanations of fellow congressmen justifying their expenses in the US was an insult to the public.