By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
THE testimony this week in Manila by Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada Jr. that former Comelec chairman Benjamin Abalos Jr. and the husband of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, first gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, had accepted kickbacks from the Chinese ZTE company after giving it a $329 million contract to build a broadband telecommunications network in the Philippines, is further proof of the extent of the corruption in the Arroyo family.
Lozada had been flown to Hong Kong after his boss, Environment Secretary Lito Atienza, a die-hard Arroyo ally, ordered him to leave to avoid having to testify in front of the Senate. But he flew back to Manila last week and was promptly taken away by plainclothes police officers who refused to tell him who they were or where they were going. According to Lozada, they drove him to a province south of Manila and returned him to the capital only after his wife and several relatives made tearful pleas on the radio for his safe return.
Yesterday, opposition Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, on an inspection visit to Ninoy Aquino International Airport, pointed out the visitor’s logbook at the Dignitaries Lounge showed that members of the Presidential Security Group were in a car that picked up Lozada at the airport and whisked him away.
If President Arroyo, her husband and Abalos are innocent of the corruption charges, why were presidential guards sent to take Lozada away from the airport in such secrecy? Where were they taking him? What would have happened to him if his family had not made such noise in the media? Would he have been killed by “mysterious” assailants? These are all questions worth asking.
According to Lozada, he was still planning not to testify about the NBN deal when he flew back to Manila last week, but that he changed his mind when former presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor promised him that he would get what had been promised him and then handed him an envelope with 50,000 pesos in cash in it.
After an apparent turn of heart, Lozada returned the money and decided to testify in front of the Senate subcommittee that is investigating the NBN deal that President Arroyo canceled last year amid a huge uproar over anomalies in the contract, overpricing and the involvement of Abalos in brokering the deal while he was still Comelec chief.
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The fallout from the whole NBN scandal started last year when Jose de Venecia III told the Senate that his company had lost out in bidding for the NBN contract because of the huge kickbacks being offered by the Chinese ZTE Corp. to get the contract. The negative repercussions for de Venecia III’s father, Jose de Venecia Jr., have been swift. Relations cooled immediately between the elder de Venecia and the president. Just last week, he was voted out of his job as speaker of the House of Representatives, and the wholesale attacks on his integrity have been launched by Arroyo allies in the House. Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Villafuerte led the attacks by claiming in a privilege speech that de Venecia Jr. was the “father” of all corruption and that he failed to fulfill his duties and obligations as speaker. These charges are laughable as the sudden demonization of the former speaker is all too obvious. One day he was the best ally of President Arroyo and then suddenly, when he was deemed expendable, he became the most vile thing that ever walked the corridors of Congress! What utter nonsense.
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Now the Daily Tribune reports that Palace insiders claim that President Arroyo has allegedly approved plans that would see her removed from office and Vice President Noli de Castro installed as president if the corruption fallout of the NBN deal continues to escalate. Under this deal, Arroyo would not be prosecuted for any crimes committed during her administration and the presidential couple would be allowed to retain any ill-gotten wealth.
That deal does sound a little far-fetched, but the sudden resurfacing of the administration-backed push for charter change this week does make one wonder about the timing of everything. It does look like a panicky Arroyo administration, buffeted again by renewed allegations of massive corruption by government officials and the first gentleman, is grasping at anything to divert public attention from such shenanigans.
What the Philippines needs now are more brave souls as Lozada to step forward and tell the truth about what they know about corruption in the NBN deal. The Catholic Church and the Makati Business Club have already signaled that they support Lozada and that they want the truth to come out.
President Arroyo should thus allow the investigation to continue unimpeded and she should step down if any corruption can be linked directly to her or her husband.