Tuesday, February 19, 2008

It's time for Gloria to face the music

PerryScope: Perry Diaz

If only President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo knew that Rodolfo "Jun" Lozada would surface and spill everything that he knew about the ZTE-NBN corruption scandal, she would have kept Jose de Venecia as Speaker of the House of Representatives. As the saying goes, "Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer." That's what she should have done with de Venecia, after all de Venecia had always been a loyal supporter of Arroyo -- from the time Arroyo was de Venecia's vice presidential running mate in 1998. In that election, Arroyo won and de Venecia lost to Joseph Estrada.

Arroyo and de Venecia became close political allies, each one needing the other to maintain their hold on power. In 2001, when Joseph Estrada was deposed as President, Arroyo was elevated to the presidency and de Venecia was elected Speaker. In 2005, when Arroyo was on the brink of losing her grip on power during the "Hello Garci" election cheating scandal, de Venecia together with former President Fidel Ramos, several congressmen, and local officials rushed to Malacanang and stood behind her. She survived.

Now, with the blistering testimony of Lozada, Arroyo is once again mired in another scandal, the magnitude of which is much greater than the "Hello Garci" scandal. Lozada testified before the Senate and implicated First Gentleman Mike Arroyo and former COMELEC Chairman Benjamin Abalos in brokering the overpriced $329 million ZTE-NBN contract which was allegedly padded with a $130 million kickback for Abalos and Mike Arroyo.

Lozada also claimed that government security people abducted him -- he insisted he was "kidnapped" -- at the international airport on February 5 upon his arrival from Hong Kong. Philippine National Police Director General Avelino Razon, Jr. claimed that the family of Lozada had requested for security. But when Razon was asked why he ordered Lozada "secured," he said that Environment Secretary Lito Atienza made the request on behalf of Lozada himself. However, on February 15, Romeo Hilomen -- chief of the Police Security Protection Office -- admitted that Lozada's family did not make a request for security for Lozada. Hilomen further admitted that he asked Lozada to sign a "letter of request seeking his protection." Recently, an airport surveillance video was released showing Lozada in the company of five men, one of whom was positively identified as a member of the Presidential Security Group (PSG).

Lozada's testimony implicating Mike Arroyo and Abalos lends credence to the testimonies of Jose "Joey" de Venecia III and Romulo Neri, former head of the National Economic Development Authority, before the Senate last October. Joey claimed that Mike Arroyo and Abalos brokered the ZTE-NBN contract. Neri testified that Abalos offered him a P200 million bribe for his approval of the $329 million deal. Neri said that he called President Arroyo and told her about Abalos' bribery offer. He said that the President told him not to accept the bribe but to go ahead and approve the contract. When he was pressed by the Senators for details, Neri invoked "executive privilege."

Recently, Neri publicly stated that he had suspicions that the ZTE-NBN contract was overpriced. He claimed that at the time he approved the deal, he didn't have any evidence or documentation to support his suspicions. That's hogwash. He should know better that there are no paper trails in this kind of deals. They're all sealed with a handshake and a kickback.

But betrayal happens all the time especially when large amount of money is involved and that's what happened in this sweetheart deal. Originally, Joey de Venecia was part of the deal and ZTE was not. But because he couldn't go along with the $130 million "commission" for Abalos, his bid was rejected. He said that to pad his Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) proposal with that amount, he would lose money on the project. Abalos then went to ZTE officials who were more than willing to accommodate his demand for a humongous kickback. Since the ZTE proposal was not a BOT, all ZTE had to do was add the "commission" to the contract price. And to secure Malacanang's endorsement of the overpriced ZTE-NBN deal, Abalos allegedly offered a $70 million grease money to his good friend Mike Arroyo. So all that Abalos needed was Neri's approval of the ZTE-NBN deal.

The testimonies of Jun Lozada, Joey de Venecia and Romulo Neri have damaged the credibility of President Arroyo beyond repair. A direct link to Arroyo was established by Neri. Joey de Venecia linked Mike Arroyo to Abalos. Lozada linked Mike Arroyo and Abalos to ZTE officials. Is it then fair to presume that Gloria Arroyo already knew what was being cooked when she told Neri to approve the deal? For all we know, she could have told Neri, "Don't accept Abalos' bribe; approve the deal and Mike will take care of you."

There is no denying that the ZTE-NBN deal was endorsed by President Arroyo. Although Arroyo canceled the ZTE-NBN contract after Joey de Venecia exposed the graft, attempts to cover up the stinking deal have brought to the forefront of debate Gloria Arroyo's moral ascendancy to govern the Filipino people. She betrayed the people and transformed the country into her family's fiefdom.

But the fa├žade of invincibility that she built around her administration is now showing some cracks. Demands for her resignation have intensified. The people want to know the truth. Yes, President Arroyo has to tell the people the truth about the ZTE-NBN deal. But for her to tell the truth, she has to ultimately face the music and ask the people for forgiveness, and abdicate the presidency that she usurped in 2001 and extended in 2004 by cheating in the election.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo have had her chance to clean up the corruption that pervaded at every level in her government. But instead of stamping it out, she turned a blind eye to the corruption around her. She used patronage -- and bribery -- to maintain her political supremacy. Arroyo must resign now. For the sake of the country, that's the only option left for her.