FORMER House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. appealed to his colleagues on Monday to “use (their) conscience” in deciding on the latest impeachment complaint against President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
The Pangasinan lawmaker was trying to win the sympathy of Mrs. Arroyo’s allies even as he revealed, in an apparent slight rebuke of his colleagues, that “many” of them received P500,000 each in bribe last year from Malacañang to support a complaint that he had considered as “fraudulent…bogus.”
The President, according to de Venecia, bribed congressmen last year “just to buy legal protection for one year.”
“This bribe money given to congressmen was her way of purchasing legal protection for one year because of the Supreme Court decision that an impeachment case can be filed only once in one year,” he said.
De Venecia, who was ousted as Speaker of the House last February 4, spoke before the chamber’s justice committee in a process termed as “recital of facts” in the course of deliberating on the opposition-endorsed impeachment complaint against the President.
De Venecia’s son, Jose ‘Joey’ de Venecia III, was one of the complainants in the latest impeachment complaint filed against Mrs. Arroyo.
The younger de Venecia had offered to undertake the $329-million national broadband network (NBN) project of the government through a build-operate-transfer scheme. The project ended up with China’s Zhong Xing Telecommunication Equipment Company Limited (ZTE) on a government-to-government deal, purportedly upon the suggestion of First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo.
‘Commodities for sale’
The bribe-giving in Malacañang, the elder de Venecia said, made congressmen look like “commodities for sale.”
By insinuating that many congressmen received bribe from Malacañang, a senior administration congressman who requested anonymity said de Venecia would find it even more difficult to win them over to his side and support the impeachment complaint in which his son is among the complainants.
“He has lost his credibility. His problem now is that he has turned against almost all of the congressmen (that) he has accused of having been bribed,” the source said.
The former speaker said he was among those who received P500,000 from the Palace. The money, he said, remains “unopened” and that he was thinking of giving it to Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) or turning it over to the House justice committee to form part of the evidence in the impeachment proceedings.
However, justice committee chair Matias Defensor said in jest that P500,000 was too small to bribe the Speaker of the House. Asked if the committee would ask de Venecia to surrender the money, Defensor said: “I think it’s useless. There’s no connection really.”
The alleged bribery in Malacañang to support the “fraudulent” impeachment complaint in 2007 and other irregularities in the $329-million NBN project with China were among the offenses charged against President Arroyo in the latest impeachment complaint, the fourth filed so far against her since she took power in 2001.
According to de Venecia, the bribe money was meant to get votes for the referral to the justice committee of a three-page impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Roel Pulido against Arroyo to prevent the filing
of a substantial complaint being prepared then by opposition Reps. Ronaldo Zamora and Rolex Suplico.
De Venecia said the late Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Crispin Beltran was offered P1 million to endorse the same complaint but that Beltran had refused. It was Laguna Rep. Edgar San Luis who ended up endorsing the Pulido complaint.
On October 11, 2007, the last day for the complaint to be referred to the justice committee, de Venecia said more than 180 congressmen were invited to a breakfast meeting in Malacañang.
P500,000-bags for congressmen
“During that meeting in Malacañang, many were given P500,000-bags,” he said. Quickly, he clarified, “I am not saying all of the congressmen…a good number of the congressmen because many of the congressmen are not guilty. But many received P500,000-bags from President Arroyo.”
De Venecia admitted he did not personally see the distribution of the bags containing P500,000. “I was not there because I knew what was going to happen.”
After the breakfast meeting, de Venecia said he was invited to go to Malacañang at 11 a.m. and met with the President at the Music Room where Mrs. Arroyo asked him to transmit the Pulido complaint to the justice committee.
He said he stood his ground against referring a “fraudulent” complaint. For refusing to heed Mrs. Arroyo’s request three or four times, de Venecia said he knew his position as Speaker was on the line. He also faced a complaint before the House committee on ethics and the Office of the Ombudsman, courtesy of Pulido.
A source who was present at the Music Room meeting, said Mrs. Arroyo was only heard saying, “I don’t understand” when de Venecia showed her a letter and said he hoped the President understood why he changed his mind in endorsing the complaint.
De Venecia said he “almost stood up to walk out on the President” during that meeting, and later pondered on a suggestion that he go on leave as speaker so that Deputy Speaker Raul del Mar would assume the position and endorse the complaint.
At that point, he said he knew his days as House Speaker were numbered. De Venecia stayed in the post for four months until he was ousted on February 4 and replaced by majority leader Prospero Nograles of Davao City.
Now a ‘free agent’
De Venecia said he now feels “liberated” more than a year after the bribery incident in Malacañang. “I’m free. I’m now a free agent,” he told reporters during a break in the impeachment proceedings.
The lawmaker, a staunch advocate of charter change when he was speaker of the House, raised suspicion that Malacañang would be rushing moves to amend the 1987 Constitution “to extend (the tenure of) Arroyo beyond 2010.”
This time, de Venecia said, he is not supporting the move. “This is not an authentic crusade. It’s a ploy to extend Gloria Arroyo beyond 2010.”
Asked why Arroyo would want to stay in power beyond her term that ends in 2010, de Venecia said: “She does not want to be facing plunder charges after she retires in 2010.”
Pressed to comment on remarks that he was bitter about the ZTE deal because his son lost in his bid to undertake the multimillion-dollar project, de Venecia retorted: “I am not running for president or prime minister.”
North Rail ‘clean’
While pinning down Arroyo on the bribery incident in Malacañang on October 11, 2007, de Venecia tried to absolve himself from insinuations of getting commission from the $503-million North Rail project, also an allegedly overpriced undertaking to be financed largely by the Export-Import Bank of China.
“How can anyone ask for a commission from the Chinese government when we are begging them to come? In ZTE it’s the other way around. In the other projects, they want to come here whereas in the case of the railway, we were begging, appealing to them to undertake this project,” de Venecia explained.
Administration officials in charge of the North Rail project have a lot of explaining to do, he said, because not a single kilometer of the 64-kilometer railroad track has been built since the agreement for the project was signed in 2004.
However, he said Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo, Ambassador Delia Albert and former finance secretary Cesar Purisima “were clean on this project.”
The project has not taken off, he said, due to “failure in government.”
“I can’t say the fault lies in the government of China which has been above board in this project,” he said, noting that officials involved in corruption in China are shot in firing squad. “Good governance is the problem,” de Venecia declared.
The justice committee also heard the “recital of facts” on other allegations in the complaint, dwelling on abuses of human rights, manipulation of the results of the 2004 presidential elections, and the
alleged diversion of P720 million in fertilizer funds to the campaign kitty of the administration in 2004.
The impeachment hearing resumes at 9 a.m. on Tuesday with Arroyo allies expected to shield and defend her from the allegations.
On Wednesday, the pro-and anti-impeachment groups will engage in a debate and later put the issue to vote on whether the complaint is sufficient in substance.