MANILA, Philippines - Former socioeconomic planning secretary Romulo Neri reprised his allegation of bribery against former Commission on Elections chairman Benjamin Abalos during yesterday’s Sandiganbayan hearing on the graft case against the retired polls chief in connection with the botched national broadband network deal between ZTE Corp. of China and the previous Arroyo administration.
For more than an hour, Neri testified how Abalos allegedly offered him a P200-million bribe in the middle of a golf game in early 2007 at the Wack Wack Golf and Country Club in Mandaluyong, supposedly for his endorsement of the $329-million NBN project. Neri was then director general of the National Economic and Development Authority or NEDA.
Neri made the same allegation before the Senate in September 2007 but he refused to divulge details citing executive privilege.
“Sec, may 200 ka dito,” he quoted Abalos as telling him while they were in a golf cart. He said he took it to mean P200 million, based on how much was involved in the NBN-ZTE project.
When asked by Associate Justice Samuel Martires whether the “200” could have meant something else like 200 women, 200 golf clubs, or 200 golf balls, Neri replied that it was “my impression” that it was P200 million.
Neri said the first time he met Abalos was when the latter visited him in his office sometime in December 2006 or January 2007, during which the former elections chief invited him to a round of golf which he accepted.
Neri even told the Sandiganbayan how he had been “awed” by Abalos’ golf skills.
Martires then asked Neri how he could have known that he was being bribed considering that he had no record of being corrupt.
Neri said he again saw Abalos during lunch with Chinese embassy officials at a Chinese restaurant at the Shangri-La Hotel in Makati City.
At this, Sandiganbayan Fourth Division chairman Justice Gregory Ong asked Neri why he, despite being “perceived to be a very honest man,” again met with Abalos after supposedly being offered a bribe.
Neri said he had never expected to see Abalos or any ZTE officials in the lunch meeting. He said he had a quick lunch and left because the Chinese kept on smoking and had difficulty communicating in English.
Neri stressed that NEDA’s function is only to assess a project and that it has nothing to do with project contractors.
Former Comelec Commissioner Benjamin Abalos attends the continuation of the hearing on the ZTE-NBN deal at the Sandiganbayan’s Fourth Division yesterday. BOY SANTOS
Neri also said that whistle-blower and personal friend Rodolfo Lozada had been consulted about the project but had never been an official consultant. He said they solicited Lozada’s help because of his expertise in communications and information technology, having worked for IBM and Alcatel.
Neri was responding to Sandiganbayan justices’ questioning regarding Lozada’s being consulted on the NBN project solely on the basis of his “unverified” stint with the two firms.
The Arroyo administration, represented by then transportation and communications secretary Leandro Mendoza signed the NBN deal with ZTE on April 20, 2007 in Hainan, China. Then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered the cancellation of the contract after accusations of irregularities surfaced.
With the cancellation of the project, the Supreme Court dismissed the petitions questioning the legality of the deal in July 2008, saying the petitions had become moot and academic.
Reacting to Neri’s testimony after the hearing, Abalos said he was “being charged now on a mere assumption.”
“Can you convict somebody on a mere guess, on a mere assumption?” he asked. “You be the judge,” Abalos said.
“Very clearly it was stated that it was merely his guess, it was merely his assumption,” he said referring to Neri’s testimony.
During the hearing, Abalos was shaking his head a number of times while listening to Neri’s testimony. His lawyers declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the Sandiganbayan fined Neri P1,000 and reprimanded Abalos for breach in court decorum.
Neri was fined for not turning his phone off while inside the courtroom while Abalos was reminded to wear a tie next time he appears in court in a coat.
Neri’s mobile phone made a beeping sound, apparently indicating a text message, shortly after the start of the hearing.
Fourth Division’s Ong said that based on rules, Neri may choose to be fined or be jailed for 10 days. Neri opted for a fine.
“Don’t worry, we will give you a receipt,” Ong told Neri.
It was also Ong, a known stickler for court rules, who called the attention of Abalos to his improper attire.
“Next time, wear a tie,” Ong told Abalos. At one point, Ong also asked an unidentified man to “sit properly” and avoid slouching.
“Even the justices have to pay fines if they forget to switch off their phones during a hearing,” a court staff said. The money would go to the Judiciary Development Fund, according to the staff.
Before Neri could leave the witness stand for a 10-minute court break, Ong reminded him not to talk to anyone as he had not yet finished his testimony.
The prosecution, after presenting Neri, said they hoped to put The STAR columnist Jarius Bondoc on the witness stand today along with either lawyer Harry Roque or Oliver Lozano.
Also today, the Sandiganbayan’s Fifth Division begins hearing the graft case against Neri with Lozada and another whistle-blower, businessman Jose de Venecia III as possible prosecution witnesses.
The court has not ruled yet on Mrs. Arroyo’s motion to quash a subpoena requiring her appearance in future hearings.
Michael Punongbayan, Philippine Star