Monday, March 17, 2008

Disconnecting the Wack Wack Connection

PerryScope: by Perry Diaz

With the recent brouhaha over the ZTE-NBE and other corruption scandals involving the First Family and their business cronies -- the "oligarchs," according to Romulo Neri -- the Wack Wack Golf and Country Club had been, or may still be, the place for the "players" to play a real life game of "Monopoly." Indeed, the place could be aptly called "Wack Wack Gold Counting Club." In the midst of all these scandals was former COMELEC Chairman Benjamin Abalos, a slick operator who was tagged as the man in middle -- the conduit -- of all these questionable multi-million dollar transactions.

Founded in 1930, Wack Wack Golf and Country Club has been the place to be for the rich and the famous. Named after the "uwak" (crow), Wack Wack has become synonymous with power and influence; that is, political power and influence peddling.

The ZTE-NBN scandal has brought Wack Wack to the limelight. It was the venue for a series of rendezvous involving Philippine government officials and businessmen from China. One of these projects -- the $329 million National Broadband Network (NBN) -- was allegedly brokered by Abalos and which implicated the First Gentleman, Mike Arroyo, as having exerted influence -- for a hefty commission -- on his wife, the President. The disclosure was made by Jose "Joey" de Venecia III, son of former Speaker Jose de Venecia, Jr., in his testimony before a Senate panel. De Venecia claimed that Abalos tried to bribe him for $10 million to withdraw his bid in favor of ZTE Corp., China's third largest telecommunication firm. De Venecia also accused Mike Arroyo of telling him to "back off" the project. And all of these alleged incidents happened at Wack Wack.

Why Wack Wack? It turned out that Abalos had been wearing too many hats and his fingers on too many pies. Abalos owns substantial shares of stock and is also the President of Wack Wack. It's sounds wacky but Wack Wack is Abalos' exclusive domain -- his little enchanted kingdom.

Wack Wack has been a dominant part of Abalos' life since his birth. He was born poor in Pangasinan on September 21, 1935. His father, Ciriaco Ruiz Abalos, worked as a locker room attendant at Wack Wack and his mother, Efroncina Santos Abalos, worked as locker room girl. He grew up in Madaluyong where Wack Wack is located and when he was old enough to work, he worked as a caddy. Golfing became his passion. And golfing also helped him connect with the rich and the powerful.

As president of Wack Wack, it was not uncommon for his VIP guests to pay him a visit at his office. In one interview with a newspaper reporter, Abalos said, "With so many VIPs I've spoken to and met at Wack Wack, I might be accused of brokering a lot more deals." Huh? Was that a Freudian slip?

At one time, by his own admission, Abalos hosted ZTE officials at Wack Wack. And at another time, he played golf with Romulo Neri, who was then the director general of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA). Neri claimed that Abalos offered him a bribe of "200" -- this figure was presumed to be "200 million pesos" -- to endorse the ZTE contract. Neri immediately reported the incident to President Arroyo. According to Neri, the President told him not to accept the bribe but to go ahead and endorse the contract with ZTE, which he did. Within a short period of time after that, President Arroyo abruptly terminated him as NEDA chief and appointed him as officer in charge of the Commission on Higher Education. Did Arroyo do that to insulate Neri from the heat that was about to ignite?

With the recent testimonies of NBN consultant Rodolfo "Jun" Lozada and ZTE consultant Dante Madriaga before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, details of the ZTE-NBN deal were exposed including the involvement of the shady "Greedy Group plus plus" which -- according to Madriaga -- was composed of Abalos, Leo San Miguel, Ruben Reyes, Quirino dela Torre, and the First Couple. Madriaga also alleged that the group received an advance of $41 million from the Chinese, $30 million of which went to the First Couple. Had the contract not been cancelled, the total "commission" would have amounted to $200 million.

Madriaga told the Senate panel that the "commission" from the ZTE-NBN deal would have amounted to 60% of $329 million which would have been divided as follows: the first 20% markup would go to ZTE; the second 20% markup would go to the "consortium" composed of ZTE and the "Greedy Group plus plus"; and the third 20% markup would go again to ZTE and the "Greedy Group plus plus."

With the ongoing investigation by the Senate, the "commissioners" -- a pejorative term for those who got "commissions" or kickbacks -- were expected to be summoned to testify. Reyes, whom Madriaga tagged as the "bagman" for the "Greedy Group plus plus," was subpoenaed by the Senate but left the country on a "business trip." Leo San Miguel appeared as a "surprise witness" only to surprise the senators that he has no knowledge of "tongpats" -- Filipino slang for kickbacks -- in the ZTE-NBN deal. Lozada immediately contradicted San Miguel by presenting an email from San Miguel to Lazada which contained an attachment detailing the "tongpats." San Miguel countered that the attachment was "doctored." Well, what else would he say, admit it? However, during a lunch break of his testimony, San Miguel was overheard talking to a person in a cell phone, saying: "Yes ma'am. Yes ma'am, I'll deny it, ma'am." Senator Panfilo Lacson believed that the person at the other end of the call was the "Ma'am" herself -- President Arroyo.

With the ZTE-NBN scandal and other controversial deals that have been "cooked" at Wack Wack, "High Commissioner" Abalos -- whose demand for a $130 million commission from the ZTE-NBN deal has opened a stinking can of worms -- has been trying to project an innocent image by challenging Lozada to a debate. However, he refused to appear before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee. If he was innocent, why wouldn't he testify before the Senate? Recently, he "won" a raffle prize held at Wack Wack for a vacation trip abroad. He said that he'll use it in April. That means that he would not be able to testify in the Senate for probably an indefinite time should he choose to stay abroad for an extended time. This reminds me of Joc-joc Bolante who took off a few years when the P3-billion fertilizer scam was being investigated by the Senate. With "High Commissioner" Abalos out of the country soon and the alleged "bagman," Ruben Reyes, on a business trip to China -- hmmm -- the Senate would be dealt once again another "Houdini" vanishing act by persons involved in scandals in the Arroyo administration.