AFTER two hours of intensive grilling which yielded a lot of befuddlement and no clear answers, National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales Jr. was cited for contempt by the Senate and kept in detention under the custody of the Senate sergeant of arms.
At times bumbling, at other times seemingly deliberately dense, Gonzales frustrated the Senate blue-ribbon committee with his inability to give straight answers to their questions about the nearly $1-million contract he signed with the US lobby firm, Venable LLP, to secure donations and US Congress earmarks to support the charter change initiative. (See PCIJ story on the Venable contract here.)
The senators, who were obviously primed for the grilling, got at best vague answers to their questions. There were times when it looked like Gonzales was feigning stupidity; other times it seemed his befuddlement was genuine. The senators felt they were being outfoxed and accused the official of running circles around them.
Although the national security adviser said his blood sugar levels were up, he did not get much sympathy from his interrogators. In the end, Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. moved to hold him in contempt and placed in the custody of the Senate “to impress upon him that he is not above the law."
Sen. Joker Arroyo, blue-ribbon committee chair, asked the Senate physician to look after Gonzales, who said he was suffering from hypertension. Not long afterward, the official was rushed to the Heart Center.
During the questioning, Gonzales tried to shield the President from any culpability in the signing of the Venable contract, leading some senators to remark that he was trying to be a fall guy for Mrs. Arroyo. Although they tried as hard as they could, the senators could not get Gonzales to answer the following questions:
- Whose idea was it to get the contract? Gonzales said the idea came to him after the resignations of the Hyatt 10 on July 8, but he could not say who told him to get in touch with Venable and whether the president had a direct hand in the choice of the firm.
- Whose idea was it to let private donors foot Venable’s bill? In an interview with GMA 7 news earlier this week, Gonzales said it was the president’s. Today he was no longer as categorical. He gave a vague answer to the effect that he and the president talked about getting private donations to pay for the hefty contract.
- Who introduced him to Venable? He said could not name names without clearing it with the broker, whoever it was. Sen. Serge Osmeña asked leading questions whether it was businessman Tomas Alcantara, the president’s chief of staff.
- What is the extent of the President’s involvement in getting the contract? Gonzales said he was given verbal authority to get the services of a lobby firm but had not shown the president a copy of the actual contract.
- Has Venable been paid for its services? Previously, Gonzales had told GMA 7 that the firm had been given a three-month advance, that there was work rendered, and a report filed. Today he said he’s not sure but he assumes Venable had been paid. He explained that while the National Security Council is the implementing agency for the contract, it was not the Council but private donors, who would pay for it. When asked if he had a receipt for the payments, Gonzales said no, but he will find out. Do you have receipt? No, but he will find out.
- How was the contract rescinded? Gonzales said he called one of the Venable lawyers this week and asked for a “mutual termination” of the contract, which would mean that the three-month cancellation fee need not be paid. But further questioning showed there was no written agreement that the fees would be waived and because of this, the provisions of the contract, which stipulated cancellation fees, were still in effect. Gonzales said he was not sure whether the phone call sufficed to cancel the provision on cancellation fees.
Although his performance at the Senate today was dismal, it inspired the Black & White Movement to issue the following statement, asking the Cabinet to quit and to stop covering for a President “who serves only herself”:
Secretary Norberto Gonzales has now been cited for contempt by the Senate of the Philippines, and the books of all the government entities he’s associated with have been subpoenaed. He is paying the ultimate price of loyalty to a chief executive who neither rewards nor recognizes loyalty. We in Black & White recall that Sec. Norberto Gonzalez said in an interview that the President told him not worry about the funds to pay for the Venable contract. The President, according to Gonzalez, said, there’d be a foreign donor.
Then on Max Soliven’s special show on ANC, the President herself said that she does not micromanage contracts and that she left everything to "Bert." That, indeed she did. She’s left everything to Bert, including twisting and hanging in the wind to cover up and be held accountable for something he could only have done, as an extension of the personality of the President. He has received neither reassurance nor support from the President. He is close to being accused of treasonous behavior. And for what? To serve the interests of a President who stands behind nothing: not her own decisions and policies, not her cabinet members, not the interest of the country.
Black & White Movement appeals to the cabinet of the President: this is what you will get, for thinking your service to the President is service to the country. You will be asked questions you cannot answer, because of the deviousness of the President you serve. You will be asked to defend policies the true nature of which has been kept from you by the President. You will be held accountable for things the President, and not you, should be held to account. The President serves no one but herself, and is prepared to do any disservice to any person, including members of her own official family, if it serves her interests.
The cabinet should cease serving a President who serves only herself. Serve the country. Serve our people. Leave the Palace. The farce has been exposed; you are puppets in a play that’s sinister and self-serving.