PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — DEPUTY Executive Secretary Manuel Gaite yesterday criticized Senate witness Rodolfo Lozada for misrepresenting the P500,000 given to him, saying the whistle-blower might have baited him into giving him the money.
“I was surprised when I learned he was coming home the day after I gave the money. Did he really need the money or was he baiting me?” Gaite said after issuing a one-page statement about the incident.
“It’s unfortunate that all my efforts at helping Jun Lozada have been twisted by him or made to appear as part of a scheme to prevent him from testifying before the Senate hearing on the national broadband network project with China’s ZTE Corp.,” Gaite’s statement said.
Gaite said he gave the money to Lozada’s brother, Owe, on Feb. 4 upon the Senate witness’ own request.
He acknowledged he might have been deceived into believing Lozada was under “dire circumstances” in Hong Kong.
Gaite said no government funds were used, but added Lozada was expected to account for the money when he returned. He did not explain where the cash came from, or why Lozada was expected to account for it, if it did not come from the government.
At the Senate Monday, Lozada turned the money over to the senators, insinuating that Gaite had released the funds to him to dissuade him from testifying.
President Arroyo yesterday took a dig at the continuing Senate probe of the $329-million national broadband deal, saying the courts and the Ombudsman were the best venues for truth and justice.
“We are hoping that the Ombudsman would conduct a thorough and fair investigation, without politics and without drama,” the President said at the opening of yesterday’s Cabinet meeting.
“This is the system of democracy to resolve allegations peacefully, truthfully and without rushing to judgment,” Mrs. Arroyo said.
At the same time, she said, it was important to address the problem of graft as a way to strengthen the economy.
“That is the reason why in the past few years we have earmarked P3 billion to fight graft, the biggest amount so far spent in the effort to address corruption,” she said.
In a separate interview, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said Lozada was part of a “grand design” to destabilize the government.
Lozada said earlier that former Socio-Economic Planning secretary Romulo Neri had called Mrs. Arroyo “evil”—a statement Neri said he could not recall making.
Neri on Monday said he was offered P20 million last November to turn against the President. He said the money was raised by “rich families.”
He tearfully appealed to the Senate yesterday to spare his “treasured friendship” with Lozada.
He said he still considered Lozada his friend and described his ordeal as “a mental torture chamber.”.
“I value friendship and you know they have already stripped him [of his] career and personal security—all the things that he treasured. But I understand because I saw what he went through,” Neri said.
Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan dared Neri to testify again before the Senate and to respond to the allegations that Lozada has made against him.
“If Lozada were lying about Neri calling President Arroyo evil, Neri should have said so out and out. Instead, he said he doesn’t remember saying something like that,” Pangilinan said.
Neri has refused to return to the Senate, saying he had already told all he had to tell in his previous testimony and asserting that his conversations with Mrs. Arroyo were covered by executive privilege.
He has a pending petition before the Supreme Court on this question.
Amid calls for them to abandon the President, members of the Cabinet joined her yesterday in a “solidarity walk” to show their continued support for the Chief Executive.
The walk took place shortly before a scheduled meeting on transparency in government procurement.
Ermita said it was important for people to see the Cabinet was solidly behind the President “in this time of political turmoil.”
Trade Secretary Peter Favila yesterday said the Cabinet was studying a private sector proposal that an independent commission be set up to investigate the broadband deal.
The justice department wanted to know the scope of the investigation and the commission’s powers, he said.
Also yesterday, an administration congressman chided the arrogance of a “noisy few” who are calling on the President to resign.
“Why don’t they just wait for the 2010 elections?” Davao del Sur Rep. Marc Douglas Cagas said. He urged the “noisy few” to stop pretending that they represented the will of all Filipinos.
“We have no demonstrations in the countryside. We have better things to do than going in the streets shouting slogans and calling for the President to resign,” he said.