Arroyo charged in broadband deal

Froemr President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo

Froemr President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo

MANILA — Former president Gloria Arroyo used the power of the presidency to facilitate approval of ZTE Corp.’s $339 million-loan proposal for the national broadband network project, despite prior knowledge of attendant irregularities, and driven by an intent to profit from the transaction.

These were the crucial findings in the 43-page resolution of the Office of the Ombudsman, which became the basis of two counts of graft and a charge of violation of the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards filed against Arroyo before the Sandiganbayan late Wednesday.

Named co-accused in one case of graft were former First Gentleman Jose Miguel T. Arroyo, former Commission on Elections chairman Benjamin Abalos Sr., and former Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza.

The resolution was submitted on December 23 by a five-member panel of investigators composed of Assistant Ombudsman Marilou Ancheta-Mejica, director Nellie Boguen-Golez, assistant special prosecutor III Roland Galvan, and graft investigation and prosecution officers Leilani Tagulao-Marquez and Richard Buban.

Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales reviewed the resolution and approved it on December 28, with an order to immediately file the cases before the graft court.

Assistant Ombudsman Asryman Rafanan, spokesman for the Ombudsman, confirmed that the informations were filed directly with the Sandiganbayan at the end of office hours Wednesday without passing through the Office of the Special Prosecutor (OSP) or inviting press coverage.

“The Ombudsman did its job and it is not part of that job to make a pre-emptive announcement to the media before any of its actions become final. The resolution was finalized on Wednesday so we went ahead and filed it,” Rafanan said.

As to what appeared to be a procedural shortcut in not coursing the informations through the OSP, Rafanan explained that the filing did not breach regular processes.

“There was no express rule that all information would have to pass through the Office of the Special Prosecutor. And anyway, the OSP is under the Office of the Ombudsman and there was a deputy special prosecutor in attendance there,” he said.

The Ombudsman held that Arroyo was the real power that drove the ZTE proposal forward, and that she wielded the power of her office to see that the Chinese firm would get the nod of the National Economic Development Authority and eventually corner the contract.

“It need not be underlined that GMA (Arroyo) had full control over the Executive Department, and that, by law, she was the chairperson of the NEDA Board which approved the ZTE proposal,” it said.

Former NEDA head Romulo Neri had testified that Abalos offered him a bribe to approve the contract, and another witness, Jose de Venecia III, said the ex-president’s husband was promised a $70-million commission.

The anti-graft body declared there was evidence that Arroyo had already been informed that the NBN-ZTE deal was already tainted with corruption even before she gave the go-ahead for the project.

“…A day before the signing of the contract, or on April 20, 2007, GMA already was fully aware of all irregularities attendant thereto. Yet, from her acts, she fast-tracked the conclusion of the contract. That GMA gave her imprimatur to the irregular and grossly disadvantageous contract should dissipate any doubt about her personal interest therein,” said the Ombudsman in the resolution.

However, the Ombudsman conceded that there was insufficient evidence to indict Arroyo or any of her three co-accused for plunder in the absence of support for the second element of the offense – the accumulation or amassing of ill-gotten wealth in the sum of P50 million or higher.

It noted that engineer Noel “Jun” Lozada and De Venecia both testified that it was Abalos who pushed for the kickback and commissions amounting to $130 million.

A separate testimony from consultant Dante Madriaga quoted his boss, Leo San Miguel, as the one who had first-hand information about the bribery concerning the NBN-ZTE deal.

“The testimonies of the witnesses cannot tend to prove that money changed hands. We can, of course, draw inference that, among other things, Mr. Abalos was the one who lobbied and pushed for the ZTE proposal, and the one who received the alleged kickback,” the Ombudsman said.

“GMA may appear to have used her position to fast-track the ZTE contract, but there is no sufficient evidence to link her to the receipt of the alleged payment of commission/kickback,” it added.

The Ombudsman likewise gave weight to testimonies that Mr. Arroyo made “active interventions” in the negotiations.

“Mr. Arroyo displayed unusual interest in the transaction, as gathered by his acts of playing golf and having lunch with ZTE officials in Shenzen, China, and initiating a reconciliatory meeting between JDV III and Mr. Abalos. His active intervention…in the transaction makes him a conspirator,” it noted.

These were the same acts on the part of the former president that played a factor in convincing the Ombudsman about Arroyo’s participation in the crime.

“Indeed, it cannot be gainsaid that GMA’s acceptance of the invitation for a round of golf and lunch with the ZTE officials in Shenzen, China during the pendency of the negotiations towards the consideration of the grant of the ZTE proposal constitutes a violation of Section 7 (d) (of the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials),” the Ombudsman said.

Prosecutor Galvan asked the Sandiganbayan for a special raffle of the three cases yesterday citing the fact that Friday, the regular “raffle day” for cases filed with the graft court, falls on a holiday.

But Presiding Justice Francisco Villaruz turned down the request as the processing of the case records was still being done yesterday, the last working day of the year.

Villaruz instead ordered the raffle set on January 2.

After the raffle and when the cases are assigned to a particular division, Sandiganbayan spokesman Renato Bocar said the court has 10 days to determine the existence of probable cause and whether or not to issue arrest warrants against the defendants.

Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Teddy Casiño voiced his disappointment over the Ombudsman’s decision to file graft charges against Arroyo instead of plunder.

“We are somewhat disappointed that only graft charges were filed and not plunder because we believe that the elements of plunder have been met,” he told reporters.

Casiño said his group will arrange a meeting with the Ombudsman “to know what efforts were made to build up the case since we, complainants, were kept in the dark on the matter.”

He said they would study what options to take in pursuing the plunder charge, including filing a motion for reconsideration or even a separate plunder case “so that the current case can now progress.”

He said however said he is still “glad” that criminal charges are now being filed against the former president.

Malaya Business Insight sources on Wednesday said the cases were based on complaints filed by Casiño and former Gabriela party-list group Rep. Liza Maza.

Arroyo, who is under hospital arrest for electoral fraud charges, has denied wrongdoing in the latest case. But under public pressure in 2008, she canceled the deal with China’s ZTE Corp.

The Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines, which provided sanctuary for Lozada in 2008 said the filing of graft charges is one way of ensuring that Rep. Arroyo would not be able to leave the country.

Rep. Arroyo tried to leave the country last month, purportedly to seek medical treatment, but was barred by immigration personnel.

Deputy presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte said, “The Filipino people have long been waiting for closure and this is the process by which we as a people can get closure.”

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