OR so former socioeconomic secretary Romulo Neri allegedly called Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, in describing her role in the “web of corruption” in the country.
This conversation, national broadband network (NBN) star witness Rodolfo Lozada said, took place in December 7, 2007 at a dinner meeting at the Asian Institute of Management. In that meeting, where opposition Senators Panfilo Lacson and Jamby Madrigal were also present, Neri gave a lecture on the country’s political economy, specifically how oligarchic families have continued to dominate key industries.
The most powerful ones apparently have close ties with the First Family. The oligarchs, who allegedly “benefit from a corrupt government,” are Enrique Razon, Tomas Alcantara, Lucio Tan, and the Aboitiz family.
“He was showing the entire system of corruption…and like she’s right in the middle of it,” Lozada said.
Neri, in a press conference in Malacañang yesterday afternoon, denied calling the president “evil.” “I can’t remember saying that,” he said.
Lozada also shared another instance where Neri, a close friend, confided that he wanted to resign from the Cabinet as the President “had lost all moral authority.”
Neri wanted out, Lozada said, and that the former National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) chief was even worried over where to source funds to support him should he decide to reveal everything he knew about the controversial project. They then considered raising funds through what they termed “patriotic money.”
Lozada said Neri wanted to quit his post a day after his conversation with Arroyo, wherein the president instructed Neri to approve the NBN project and to just ignore the “bribe offer” of Abalos.
In his earlier testimony before the Senate, Neri said Arroyo told him not to accept the P200-million bribe. But when pressed if the president told him to approve the project anyway, Neri clammed up and invoked executive privilege.
When reporters asked him what the president’s specific instructions were, he said he cannot comment since he has a pending petition on the issue of presidential prerogative before the Supreme Court.
“There was nothing incriminating in our discussions,” said Neri, who was seated beside Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita during the Malacañang press conference. It was Ermita who instructed Neri to invoke executive privilege when he testified before the Senate last year.
Time to tell the truth
But according to Lozada, Neri said the president had insisted that the broadband project should be part of the Chinese loan package. Lozada could not remember the exact date but he said that a day after that conversation, the joint NEDA-ICC (Investment Coordinating Committee) had a meeting and the matter was discussed.
Lozada’s story corroborates Jose ‘Joey’ de Venecia III‘s statements on the matter. The younger de Venecia said Arroyo asked Neri to “do all the necessary paper works and some realignments from that package from China to be able to reallocate them to the NBN.” Part of the fund was supposed to go to the housing projects for police and military officers and to the Angat Dam water project.
De Venecia said Neri even complained to him, saying that the president’s order was “very difficult” to achieve. He also said Neri admitted he wanted to resign at that time.
“It’s time for him to tell the truth,” Teresita Quintos Deles said in an interview with the ANC. Deles is one of the so-called Hyatt 10, members of Arroyo’s Cabinet who resigned at the height of the “Hello, Garci” controversy in 2005.
But Neri said he could not understand why his role in the multimillion scandal seems to be so important. “I cannot understand all of this attention, frankly.”
Emilia Boncodin, also one of the Hyatt 10, however said that the more Neri “keeps quiet, the more suspicious the public will be.”
In the same presscon, Neri also denied any knowledge of the P500,000 that Deputy Executive Secretary Manuel Gaite allegedly gave to Lozada. The money, which was handed over to Lozada’s younger brother, was for Lozada’s stay in Hong Kong.
Lozada said he was using up his credit card limit and needed money to buy winter clothes. He said he had informed Neri and his former boss, environment secretary Lito Atienza, of his predicament.
Lozada never spent the money; yesterday morning he turned it over to the Senate. The money, neatly arranged in 10 bundles of P500 bills, was inside a long manila envelope.
On the issue of what Neri meant by telling Lozada to “moderate their greed,” referring to the ensuing squabble between Abalos and de Venecia over how much the “kickback” should be, Neri said he was just using “colorful language.”
“I was just looking for a way to bring down the project cost,” he said. Neri further denied any knowledge of any meetings apart from that in Makati Shangri-La with the ZTE officials and the lecture at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM).
Deles said Neri is doing damage to institutions by being part of the NBN cover-up. “He should understand that he is part of putting this country through such anguish. He has to set things right.”