(UPDATE 4) Blue Ribbon seeks probe vs Arroyo, raps vs FG for NBN-ZTE deal

by Purple S. Romero, abs-cbNEWS.com/Newsbreak

Posted at Nov 10 2009 07:47 PM | Updated as of Nov 11 2009 08:01 PM

MANILA - The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee on Tuesday recommended to the Ombudsman that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo be investigated for possible violation of the Constitution in connection with the anomalous US$329-million National Broadband Network (NBN) deal with Chinese telecommunications firm, ZTE Corp..

It also urged the Ombudsman to file charges against First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, former Commission on Elections chief Benjamin Abalos, and former House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. for violations of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act for their involvement in the deal. (Read: Blue Ribbon Committee recommendations)

The Blue Ribbon Committee report was signed by its chair Sen. Richard Gordon, and Senators Joker Arroyo, Edgardo Angara, Aquilino Pimentel Jr., and Gregorio Honasan.

“The president has lots to answer for,” Gordon said. “The president was unable to crack the whip on her people.”

Gordon said President Arroyo should be probed for her failure to act on the allegations of corruption and bribery in connection with the NBN-ZTE deal.

When former National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) chief Romulo Neri told Arroyo in 2007 that he was offered a bribe to approve the project, Gordon said the President should have intervened and called for an investigation.

Neri testified that then Comelec chair Benjamin Abalos offered a P200-million bribe to help facilitate the project. Abalos allegedly helped broker the NBN project with Chinese firm ZTE.

“In the middle of it all, is a President who was unable to control and discipline her own men as they fight over their kickbacks. She kept her silence in the midst of the corruption – acquiescing and condoning the deed. The facts pointing to her may not be total, but the stink is perceived to have reached her office,” said the committee in the report’s executive summary.

While the committee report did not indicate any specific offense against Mrs. Arroyo, the report cited Article VII, Section 5 which provides that the President “preserve and defend the Constitution, execute its laws, do justice to every man” and Article VII, Section 17 which says “The President shall have control of all the executive departments, bureaus, and offices. He shall ensure that the laws be faithfully executed.”

The committee report said: “"Her acts in this case reveal that her performance of presidential duty has been wanting."

Gordon also criticized the Office of the Ombudsman for overlooking the possible culpability of President Arroyo in the questionable deal on the ground of presidential immunity.

“The Ombudsman has no business making a recommendation na walang siyang dapat panagutan. Dapat ibigay niya sa Kongreso, iyon ang tungkulin ng Kongreso dapat imbestigahin. Di siya rin dapat nagsasabi na iyong 1 year na restriction ay lumipas na. Dapat ibigay niya ito sa Kongreso para ang Kongreso ang siyang magsabi,” said Gordon.

Role of First Gentleman

Gordon said that the First Gentleman should be probed for violating Sections 4 (a) and 5 of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibit private individuals from using their relationship with people in power to gain from business transactions.

The First Gentleman allegedly told Jose ‘Joey’ de Venecia III, head of Amsterdam Holdings Inc., (AHI) to "back off" from the NBN project. AHI also tried to bag the NBN deal.

More than this, Gordon said that Mr. Arroyo served as a "watering hole" for the transaction. “He was where people who are participants to the project converged,” the report stressed.

Aside from the First Couple, the committee also recommended the filing of charges against Abalos, former Speaker de Venecia and his son Joey, Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Secretary Leandro Mendoza, DOTC Assistant Secretary Elmer Soneja, DOTC Assistant Secretary Lorenzo Formoso, Neri, and whistleblower Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada Jr. for allegedly violating provisions of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

Abalos was also recommended to be charged with violation of Article 212 of the Revised Penal Code or Corruption of Public Officials while the former House Speaker was also recommended to be charged with violation of Section 7 (d) of Republic Act 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

The Blue Ribbon Committee also recommended that Deputy Executive Secretary Manuel Gaite and Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Joselito Atienza be charged for alleged violation of Article 150 of the Revised Penal Code, or disobedience to summons issued by the legislature.

According to the committee, they should also be held culpable for obstruction of justice as they tried to prevent Lozada from testifying in the Senate inquiry.

Atienza allegedly sent his "people" to meet Lozada at the airport upon his arrival from Hong Kong in 2008, while Gaite purportedly facilitated Lozada’s departure so that he can evade any probe regarding the controversial project.

PGMA, Mike Arroyo defended

In response to the Senate Blue Ribbon committee's findings, Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said: "It is not true that the President did not act on the report of then NEDA Secretary [Neri] that there was an attempt to bribe him. The President ordered DILG [Department of Interior and Local Government] Secretary Ronaldo Puno to investigate through the PNP [Philippine National Police]."

He added: "Puno said the PNP promptly conducted an investigation. However, he added, the result was inconclusive at that time. Puno reported to the president that there was no basis to file charges against anyone at that time."

Mr. Arroyo's personal lawyer, Ruy Rondain, said: "There is a case pending at the Ombudsman which found no evidence vs Atty Arroyo beyond speculations and conjectures. Based on all the evidence presented, including the entire Senate transcript, the Ombudsman also found that the President is immune [from suit]. Motions for reconsideration are pending. Let's allow the Ombudsman to finish her job."

Abalos said in response to the report: "I expected that recommendation because they have been very, very hostile and mean to me since the prosecutors have the monopoly of the truth. I was invited as a resource person, and everything I was saying was a lie to them so I expected that."

He declined to comment further.

Gordon said that it is up to the Ombudsman if it wants to declare Lozada as a state witness.

The committee also said DOTC Secretary Mendoza should be penalized for endorsing de Venecia III for the project, while de Venecia is in hot water for intervening in the transactions. He joined the Arroyos in a trip to China to meet ZTE officials in 2006.

Bayan Muna Rep. Teodoro Casiño, said "the Senate appears to have done a good job on its NBN-ZTE inquiry. We hope the Ombudsman heeds the recommendation to charge everyone involved including FG Arroyo. The report should thus be used as additional material to revise the Ombudsman's findings accordingly. We also hope it can be used in prosecuting Mrs. Arroyo after her term ends in 2010."

Ombudsman clears GMA, FG

Last August, the Office of the Ombudsman cleared President Arroyo and the First Gentleman of criminal liabilities in relation to the botched NBN-ZTE deal. (Read: Abalos, Neri to face graft raps for NBN-ZTE)

The Ombudsman said President Arroyo was immune from suit. It recommended that charges of violation of the Revised Penal Code and the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act be filed only against Abalos and Neri.

The Ombudsman also recommended that criminal complaints against former Speaker de Venecia, Mendoza, DOTC senior officials Lorenzo Formoso and Elmer Soneja be dismissed for lack of probable cause.

Neri, currently the president of the Social Security System (SSS), had testified at a Senate hearing that Abalos offered him a bribe to facilitate the NBN-ZTE project by saying: "Sec, may 200 ka dito (Secretary, you have P200 million here)."

Lozada, Neri's adviser on the telecommunications project, also backed allegations of overpricing and kickbacks for Abalos and other individuals.

ZTE officials involved in the aborted project were also absolved by the Ombudsman.

Abalos and Neri have filed separate motions for reconsideration on the Ombudsman ruling.

The Concerned Citizens’ Movement, one of the complainants, had said it will appeal the Ombudsman's ruling absolving the president and her husband. 

The NBN-ZTE deal was initially agreed upon in April 2007, but President Arroyo opted to cancel it in September 2007. -- with reports from Joey Villarama and RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News; Carmela Fonbuena, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak

Correction: In the first posting of this report, we erroneously reported that the Senate Blue Ribbon committee recommended that charges be filed against President Arroyo. The committee only recommended that she be investigated. Our apologies. -- Eds.