Friday, March 21, 2008

Philippine Senate: NBN ZTE investigation sizzles then fizzles down

A serious bout of allergies have kept me from updating this blog from the Senate. Having gotten a whole lot better and gotten hold of some free time this Holy Week, I now resume my blogging with a post facto commentary on the NBN ZTE investigation at the Senate and other incidents worth taking note of.

After the surprise pulled off by surprise witness Leo San Miguel, Senators identified with the political opposition are calling in another member of what has been called the 'Greedy Group' that supposedly brokered the NBN ZTE deal. Businessman Ruben Reyes is up next on the stand and the question is, will he willingly or unwillingly spill the beans on corruption in the highest office of the land? Or will it be another surprise?

Some Senators who have figured prominently in the investigation on the NBN ZTE deal have been accused of grandstanding or just seeking publicity. The accusation has been attributed to some Malacanang Palace officials and known allies of the administration. A few Senators retorted that this was the Palace's way of trying to embarrass the Senate into stopping the investigation. Reporters at the Senate, however, believe that the only way to get a full exposition of the facts surrounding the NBN ZTE deal is for the Senate to continue with its investigation -- no matter what happens. There are still some journalists who profess some sense of their role as instruments of Democracy believing that by arming the public with facts they will be better equipped to make decisions and they currently side with the Senators turned investigators in their quest to unravel the whole story surrounding the NBN ZTE hearing. That decision can either mean calling for the President's ouster (which has happened and which the President has ignored) or siding with the President.

Just before former cable TV company executive Leo San Miguel stood before the joint committees investigating the NBN ZTE deal, Dante Madriaga's testimony described the workings of what he called the 'Greedy Group' which supposedly received an advance of $41 Million from ZTE officials purportedly for facilitating the approval of the National Broadband Network loan based project. The Greedy Group was allegedly composed of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, Leo San Miguel, retired police official Quirino Dela Torre, retired COMELEC Chairman Benjamin Abalos, and Ruben Reyes. It was after Madriaga's testimony that Senator Panfilo Lacson and Senator Nene Pimentel announced that a 'surprise' witness would surface and reveal more about the Greedy group. Lacson said that the new witness would tell everyone how the P 41 Million was divided and distributed among the greedy group. But, when the day came for Leo San Miguel to spill the beans on the corrupt deal, Lacson started hedging on what San Miguel would testify to and in a radio interview, he was heard telling audiences that he didn't want to preempt what San Miguel was going to say before the Senate's joint committees.

It was just after a preliminary discussion on rules during 12th hearing of the ZTE NBN deal that San Miguel announced that all he would be testifying to would be about the purely technical matters of the NBN deal. This was followed by several hours of questioning by Senators where San Miguel repeatedly denied any knowledge of bribery taking place. Near the end of the hearing, Lacson and other Senators took turns calling San Miguel a liar.

It was in the aftermath of the hearings that Senator Richard Gordon's resolution (requiring investigating committees to make it mandatory for witnesses to sign an affidavit attesting to the matter that they were called to speak of or allow a deposition to take place before the hearing proper) became quite relevant. At the present instance, witnesses coming before a Senate inquiry are held to an oath of truth only on the day that they appear before the Senate and are not required to state their testimony on record before they appear at the hearing. This leaves the Senate open or vulnerable to witnesses who will claim one thing before taking oath and then changing their testimony after taking oath. In the case of Leo San Miguel, Lacson claims that San Miguel told him that he knew intimate knowledge of the distribution of the P 41 Million in bribe advances but under oath denied any knowledge of any attempt at bribery by any official.

After more than a hundred hours spread over 12 hearings, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and Senators Alan Peter Cayetano, Panfilo Lacson and Jinggoy Estrada feel that the investigation into the NBN ZTE deal is far from conclusion. The Senators want to put Ruben Reyes, a member of the Greedy Group, on the stand.

How, then, will Gordon's resolution (if implemented) affect the proceedings of the NBN ZTE hearing?

On one hand, cooperative witnesses will not be able to change their testimony as what allegedly happened with Leo San Miguel. It can lead to a faster conclusion of Senate investigations.

But reporters in the Senate have pointed out one other implication and that is the possibility that depositions might be conducted behind closed doors. At the current time, when some Senators have already been clearly seen as lawyering for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and when hiding things from the public raises suspicions, some reporters say that implementing the resolution would have a negative effect.

Other reporters also say that the resolution can be an effective log jam in investigations, where uncooperative witnesses or hostile witnesses who do not want to appear at the Senate investigation can simply refuse a deposition or simply submit an affidavit denying any knowledge of the matter being investigated. Under the Gordon's resolution, witnesses who lack written and sworn in testimonies will not be allowed to appear in the hearing and expose what they know.

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