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Saturday, February 09, 2008

 

Bribes the ‘norm’ in system

Lozada confirms P200-M bribe to Neri


Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada Jr. confirmed that Benjamin Abalos Sr. had planned to give a P200-million bribe to Romulo Neri, once the national broadband network project was approved.

Abalos, formerly chairman of the Commission on Elections, earlier denied Neri’s Senate testimony where he disclosed the bribe offer. Neri quoted Abalos as saying, “Sec, may 200 ka dito.” (Secretary, you have 200 here.)

Lozada was the witness Friday before the Senate blue-ribbon committee headed by Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano. Lozada often represented Neri in discussions on the national broadband project with Abalos and the proponent from China, ZTE Corp.

Lozada, an electronics engineer brought in as a key witness to assess the national broadband deal, said during the inquiry he was told to reduce the kickbacks to President Gloria Arroyo’s allies and to “moderate their greed.”

The $330-million contract that ZTE Corp. won has since been canceled amid allegations of bribery and corruption linking senior government officials and President Arroyo’s husband, Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo.

Lozada, often wiping tears from his eyes, told the investigators how he feared for his life.

The fallout from the controversy has cost a former ally of President Arroyo, Jose de Venecia Jr., his post as Speaker of the House of Representatives and seen the resignation of Abalos. The Speaker’s son, Jose “Joey” de Venecia 3rd, earlier testified that Abalos and Mike Arroyo were linked to the broadband deal—charges they have both denied.

Lozada asserted that Abalos, a close friend of the President’s husband, demanded that the contract be awarded to the Chinese firm.

“The trouble started when Abalos came to me to sell the [ZTE Corp.] proposal in September 2006,” he said under oath.

Lozada added that Abalos had told him “to protect” his $130-million “commission.”

“I warned him, that would stick out, but we might be able to get 65 [million dollars],” he said he told Abalos after consulting with Jose de Venecia. He represented another proponent, Amsterdam Holdings Inc. Lozada said he was trying to “reconcile” the proposals of Abalos and de Venecia, so that they will work together.

Lozada said Neri, who eventually approved the revised contract, instructed him to “moderate their greed.”

Over the next 16 months, he said, he met Abalos, de Venecia, ZTE Corp. officials, a commercial counselor from the Chinese Embassy in Manila and Mike Arroyo to discuss the broadband project.

Lozada said when it initially appeared that the Chinese proposal would be junked, Abalos called him in January 2007, swore at him, and told him not to show up in Wack-Wack or anywhere in Mandaluyong or he would have Lozada killed.

The witness told the Senate he asked to be taken off the project evaluation team after that. “This is not worth risking my life for,” Lozada said.

Happy Abalos

He said he recalled that he was in Wack-Wack in a meeting with Abalos when he told Chinese representatives from ZTE that their project was moving forward. Wack-Wack is an exclusive residential village in Metro Manila’s Mandalu­yong City of which Abalos was once mayor.

“Abalos was obviously elated, he put an arm on my shoulder at the locker room and said that once the [broadband] contract was signed, he would immediately give the P200 million he had promised because he was unlike others,” Lozada added.

He stressed that Abalos also told him that the money was meant for Neri and not for him because he was only an “alalay” or aide of Neri. Neri had told the blue-ribbon committee that he reported the P200-million bribe offer of Abalos to President Arroyo. Neri said he had rejected the kickback.

Lozada said Neri had told him about his talks with the President but he declined to give details, even when Sen. Francis Pangili­nan advised him that it was not hearsay to tell what he and Neri had discussed.

Sen. Francis Escudero noted that Neri now appeared to be siding with Malacañang and had already abandoned Lozada. Lozada, however, said he was not taking this against Neri, whom he described as a dear friend.

“I know he still cares for me,” Lozada said of Neri. “He has chosen to take sides, but I still respect him,” he added, while expressing the hope that Neri would tell everything that he knows about the aborted broadband project.

Dysfunctional system

Lozada said it was the norm in government to get kickbacks from projects but he contended that the $130-million “commission” that Abalos was trying to protect in the broadband deal was “too much.”

He identified the Southrail as another government project whose cost had gone up because of alleged graft. The Southrail, with a total cost of $932 million, was meant to rehabilitate the railways from Manila to southern Bicol Region. The first phase involves a 423-kilometer stretch from Calamba, Laguna, to Legazpi City, Albay, costing $627.8 million. Phase 2 is a new 135-kilometer railway line from Legazpi City to Sorsogon costing $304.2 million.

Lozada said he was familiar with the Southrail project, one of the three projects he had handled for the National Economic and Development Authority. He added that the project was overpriced by at least 20 percent.

Lozada said while the broadband project was followed up by Abalos, the Southrail was followed up by a certain “Anthony Wang” and a “Mallari.”

When he was asked if the two were coordinating with Malaca­ñang, he said that they had told him that they would be responsible for those in Malacañang.

He described the Southrail as a government project that had escaped scrutiny but was actually part of the government’s “dysfunctional procurement process.”

Sen. Manuel Roxas 2nd said he would file a resolution on Monday to call for an investigation of the Southrail project.

“We have to be vigilant and zealous when it comes to protecting our people’s money because obviously the looting of our treasury has been going on for some time,” he added.

In his opening statement at the Senate inquiry, Roxas said the broadband deal was not about modernizing the Philippines.

“It is about lining the pockets of those in power. It is not about serving the Republic, it is about syndicated looting of our treasury,” he charged.

Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. said the investigation of the Southrail could be undertaken after the blue-ribbon committee had disposed of the broadband project.

In the House of Representatives, opposition Rep. Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro City called for reopening of its probe of the broad­band project, as well as the Cyber Education project that is also perceived to be anomalous.

Rodriguez said the former Speaker’s hint of having personal knowledge of the broadband contract gives the House a compelling reason to conduct the inquiry.
-- Efren L. Danao and AFP

   

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