Probe deeper Inquirer EDITORIAL
Last updated 01:47am (Mla time) 09/24/2007
MANILA, Philippines -- The decision to “suspend” what Trade Secretary Peter Favila rather defensively called the “much-talked-about and much-maligned broadband project” (as well as the other controversial Chinese-funded initiative, the Cyber Education Project) is an obvious attempt to pull the rug from under the Senate committees investigating the allegedly anomalous deal.
In making the announcement on Saturday, Favila was accompanied by Acting Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera, who suggested, most tellingly, that perhaps the Senate investigation was no longer necessary. “What more can they [the senators] ask when everything has been answered and explained? It’s my personal opinion that everything has been covered.”
We’re glad she hedged her answer by qualifying it as her personal opinion, because if it were her department’s official opinion, we would have reason to ask the government’s chief lawyer to resign her brief.
By no stretch of the imagination could the seven-hour hearing at the Senate session hall last Thursday be considered to have “covered” everything. (Unless, of course, “cover” means “cover up.”) Many questions are begging to be asked. What kind of lawyer has Devanadera become, if she suggests that these questions have not only been asked, they have been definitively answered?
The suspension of the ZTE arrangement (or “contract in the process of becoming,” as Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile described the controversial document regarding the proposed National Broadband Network last Thursday) will lead to its cancellation; but is the suspension (a cancellation, so to speak, in the process of becoming) enough reason to conclude the Senate investigation?
Not for all the tea in China. If anything, the decision to suspend the arrangement should embolden the senators, on both sides of the aisle, to get to the bottom of the controversy.
We all already know this, but for the benefit of Solicitor General Devanadera, let us list down a few of the questions that must be asked, and that must be answered to the satisfaction of the Senate and the people, in the next hearing.
First, and most important: Why is Commission on Elections Chairman Benjamin Abalos brokering for ZTE?
Even the most elastic testimony last Thursday, that of Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza, cannot disguise the unusual interest Abalos has shown in ZTE’s proposal. Assistant Secretary Lorenzo Formoso would have us believe that he and businessman Jose “Joey” de Venecia III discussed NBN business under Abalos’ benign and disinterested gaze; perhaps he is merely protecting himself, but the mere fact that the discussion took place right in Abalos’ office in the Comelec, and in Abalos’ presence, is on its face already questionable. Considering what others involved in the project, however peripherally, have said about Abalos’ interest, Formoso’s characterization of Abalos’ role in those fateful meetings becomes highly suspect. If Abalos went out of his way to discuss the NBN project with Finance Secretary Margarito Teves, the Senate must determine the scope and extent of the Comelec chairman’s interest in the ZTE deal.
Second, glaring discrepancies exist between Mendoza’s testimony and the young De Venecia’s. Who, in fact, is telling the truth? Even a simple matter like who introduced whom must be resolved: Did Speaker Jose de Venecia in fact introduce his son to Mendoza for the first time early this year, as Mendoza claims? Did Mendoza in fact organize a “reconciliatory” meeting between “the old man” (Abalos) and the De Venecia scion? Did a waiter at the Wack-Wack club house in fact witness the alleged “Back off!” incident, where Jose Miguel Arroyo allegedly tried to intimidate the young De Venecia? (This is Sen. Jinggoy Estrada’s call, and we hope, for the sake of the waiter and his family, that he had thought it through before making the announcement during the first hearing.)
Third, what did President Macapagal-Arroyo know, and when did she know it? Even without Abalos’ impeachable involvement, the ZTE “contract” remains suspect. How, for instance, was the NBN decision converted, quite seamlessly, from build-operate-transfer initiative to government-project-funded-by-concessional-loan? That conversion requires the imprimatur of the President, nothing less. Perhaps Secretary Romulo Neri can―finally, finally―enlighten us.
“Everything has been covered”? Not by a long shot.