What they expect Neri to disclose
GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc
Monday, September 24, 2007
Last Thursday Romy Neri was supposed to testify at the Senate on the hated ZTE deal. On the eve he noticed strange men casing his house in Quezon City. As a Cabinet member Romy promptly reported the security threat. Executive Sec. Ed Ermita dispatched a team from the Presidential Security Group. Romy failed to attend the Senate hearing due to bum stomach. The surveillants turned out to be police intelligence agents.
Why cops were spying on him, Romy doesn’t understand. News reports, meanwhile, quoted Armed Forces chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon as associating the ZTE scam exposé to a plot to rock the Arroyo tenure. The military analysis echoes the old Marcos martial law trick of blaming legitimate dissent on communists and rightists. Did the surveillants suspect Romy of being among the imagined conspirators? Why do some officials seem so scared of what he might reveal about the $330-million government broadband deal with ZTE Corp. of China?
I have talked to Romy exactly ten times by phone and face-to-face ever since I started a series in Mar. on the ZTE scam. Each conversation was tense. On two occasions Romy swore me to secrecy. At least twice too he said his life was in my hands. In the last three talks, including Tuesday after I first testified about my exposés, I asked him when he would bare all. He repeated that there’s a time and place for everything. I told him of at least four pious groups that are praying for his safety. He assured me he would tell only the truth if made to take the oath. I said I anticipate the heavy sacrifice he would face if he does so; he sympathized with me for undergoing harassment, threats and false accusations. In our last talk, I told him I am honored he considers me a friend since 1987, when he became head of the Congress Planning and Budget Office.
I often review my notes of our first talk on the morning of Apr. 20, the day I wrote about the rush to sign the ZTE contract in Boao, China. From insider info, I had stated that the National Economic Development Authority, which he headed then, had approved the ZTE deal in a huff. He called to clarify that what NEDA had cleared was the concept for a national broadband network, not the company. Sorry, I said, but I drew my conclusion from the endorsement of Secretaries Leandro Mendoza and Ramon Sales specifying both Amsterdam Holdings Inc. and ZTE — just that it’s with the latter that Mendoza was signing a contract. I confided the tip that the NEDA didn’t like what it was doing.
Romy then rattled off many things he knew about the events leading to the scheduled signing of Apr. 21. I later learned that he had told at least three of our common friends the same things.
Some of the items have since been reported in broadcast and print. There was a supposed invitation from Comelec chief Benjamin Abalos to golf at the Wack Wack Country Club, during which Romy was offered P200 million to support ZTE. As the story goes, Romy turned down and told President Arroyo about the indecent proposal. Whereupon, she instructed him to not accept the bribe but ensure the NEDA approvals just the same. Romy has neither confirmed nor denied the reports.
Only God and Romy know if under oath he would confirm or deny the other items. I pray that he expound on them. He had told me on that morning of Apr. 20 and several other times that not only a Comelec official but an influential businessman too was inordinately lobbying for ZTE Corp. The businessman allegedly was responsible for the sudden rise of the ZTE tag price to $330 million days before the signing, when its original offer in Dec. to Feb. was $262 million. What was the $68-million difference for, I asked in subsequent talks. Romy said the businessman was assigned to raise campaign funds for an administration party during the last election.
I would understand if Romy balks in identifying the businessman. In a previous cocktail party at the residence of Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., he said, that man had cornered and threatened him for opposing a fishy pier project. That man reportedly also worked on Romy’s consequent transfer from NEDA to the Commission on Higher Education.
Romy in our talks implicated most of the persons Joey de Venecia has exposed under oath as thieving from the broadband purchase. But I get the impression that Romy knows much more than the heroic whistleblower who initially was bidding for the telecom project.
About ZTE executives, Romy also said he has never seen any group as aggressive as them in pushing for a contract. They were waiting outside the NEDA conference room while the Cabinet was deliberating about them.
More importantly, Romy said a very powerful official arm-twisted him to turn the broadband project from a safe build-operate-transfer plan to a risky outright supply purchase. It was for that reason, he told me on Apr. 20, that he almost resigned from the Cabinet the day before.
* * *