MANILA, Philippines – The Senate is offering protection to a new witness in the national broadband network (NBN) scandal to make him keep an earlier commitment to testify before the Blue Ribbon committee despite alleged death threats.
Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, Blue Ribbon committee chairman, said Rodolfo Lozada Jr. could be placed under the Senate’s witness protection program to persuade him to share information on alleged irregularities in the government’s NBN deal with ZTE Corp. of China.
Lozada, chief executive officer of the state-run Philippine Forest Corp., was supposed to testify today before the committee but backed out after allegedly receiving death threats. It was not immediately clear where the threats came from, but Lozada’s testimony is expected to implicate First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo and other prominent administration officials, as well as former elections chief Benjamin Abalos.
Malacañang yesterday denied insinuations that administration officials were behind the death threats on Lozada and his family.
The firm that Lozada heads is a subsidiary of the state-owned Natural Resources Development Corp., where Commission on Higher Education chairman Romulo Neri used to sit as board member when he was still director of the National Economic and Development Authority.
Cayetano said the Senate is allowed to offer security protection to individuals testifying in its hearings.
“The problem is he never really got in touch with the committee. If it’s his life that he’s worried about, (he should have not even thought of testifying) because the threats are expected,” Cayetano said.
“The best protection to your life and to your job is to testify,” Cayetano said, addressing Lozada.
One of those given protection by the Senate was Sandra Cam, who exposed the alleged links of the First Family to jueteng operations in the country.
Cayetano said nobody, particularly the government, would touch him all the more if he comes out in the open “Whoever will be implicated will be afraid because they will naturally become the suspects,” he said.
Cayetano said Lozada should also not make it appear that he was being forced to testify.
“He must be sure about what he wants to do and not give in to pressure. The thing is maybe he never really intends to testify that is why he caves in,” he said.
It was businessman Jose “Joey” de Venecia III, son and namesake of the Speaker, who spilled the beans on the alleged NBN irregularities. De Venecia spoke of how Abalos brokered for ZTE Corp. and getting lavish gifts – including young women – in return.
Earlier, Sen. Panfilo Lacson blamed Lozada’s troubles on the premature release to the media of the Senate’s subpoena for Lozada. Cayetano insisted he did not leak any information.
In a separate interview, Lacson said that although Lozada is not expected to attend today’s hearing, he is considering showing up next week, possibly Monday.
“I think he is buying time because he belongs to the government and needs permission to testify,” Lacson said.
Executive Order 464 bars officials from attending legislative hearings unless allowed by the President.
Lacson said he was disappointed by Lozada’s decision not to appear today before the committee.
“But I was told that one of his idols is (national hero Jose) Rizal so he has a heroic sense in him. And maybe this will drive him to tell the truth,” Lacson said.
Lacson said he is willing to guarantee Lozada’s security since Senate protection cannot be depended upon.
“It is not that simple that is why I offered him protection myself. It’s complicated because unlike Sandra Cam who is jobless, Lozada is a high- level individual,” Lacson said. Lozada is said to be consulting with his lawyers regarding his next move.
ZTE Corp. said it was “unfair and absurd” for the Senate to include De Venecia in its panel of so-called industry experts to look into allegations of overpricing in the aborted $329-million NBN deal.
“This is simply because his position as a rival of ZTE in the aborted Philippine national broadband network project precludes any objectivity on his part or the conclusion reached by his so-called panel,” ZTE said in a statement.
De Venecia heads Amsterdam Holdings Inc. whose own NBN proposal was rejected by the government in favor of ZTE.
“We maintain that ZTE had offered the Philippine government the best NBN network for the least amount of money,” ZTE said.
It was Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza and ZTE official Yu Yong who signed the contract, which has since been cancelled by Mrs. Arroyo following a political firestorm triggered by corruption allegations.
De Venecia said that the First Gentleman had even ordered him to “back off” from the project.
In one of the Senate hearings on the issue, Neri said Abalos offered him P200 million in exchange for his endorsement of the ZTE deal. Neri was the socioeconomic secretary when Abalos made the alleged offer.
In its statement yesterday, ZTE also branded as “unethical” the handing over of ZTE bid documents to De Venecia.
“It should be stressed that under international commercial and legal practices, it is unethical to hand over to Mr. De Venecia ZTE’s bid documents under the pretext of his panel conducting an appraisal of it,” ZTE said.
“ZTE’s bid documents contained technical secrets, which our company painstakingly developed through the years under hundreds of international patents. Needless to say, those secrets entailed ZTE investing heavily on research and development (R&D),” ZTE pointed out.
“The Philippines being a respectable and responsible member of the international community which upholds the international property rights of individuals and corporations, the turning over of ZTE documents to Mr. De Venecia was really appalling,” ZTE stressed.
“ZTE has already suffered long and hard though due to no fault of ours. The discontinuation of the NBN project had cost us time and money, but we cannot allow this circus to affect us in the face of the many multi-million dollar projects we have finished and are in the process of completing worldwide,” ZTE said.
“ZTE Corporation of China has no time for this nonsense and it will not allow itself to be used continuously as a political tool,” it added.
At Malacañang, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said Palace lawyers are considering whether to allow Lozada to testify at the Senate.
“I don’t know the fellow except that he is working in an agency connected with the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources),” Ermita said of Lozada.
“It’s within their (senators) right to do that (inquiry) but we have to find out from our legal from Malacañang and at the same time from the DENR how to handle this particular case,” he said.
Sources said some opposition politicians are pressuring Lozada into appearing in the hearing or by threatening him with a lifestyle check. Lozada reportedly owns several luxury vehicles.
Leave Speaker alone
For his part, De Venecia III asked administration officials including those in the legislature to keep his father out of the issue. The younger De Venecia made the appeal amid fresh ouster moves against the Speaker.
“Why don’t they just charge me in court if they want to? My father has nothing to do with this. My father keeps telling me not to go to the Senate but what I can do, this is part of my civic duty for good governance. I am not my father (who is in the political front),” De Venecia said in a phone interview.
“My father is loyal to GMA,” according to De Venecia who arrived from New York around noon yesterday after a brief vacation in the United States.
He said he hopes Lozada will change his mind and attend today’s hearing.
He said Lozada was privy to the review of the ZTE contract since he was trusted by Neri and had access to the NBN documents. Asked why Neri trusted Lozada that much, De Venecia said Lozada was a “friend of Romi Neri” and that Lozada “was doing Romi a favor primarily as a friend.” - With Paolo Romero, Reinir Padua and Christina Mendez