Sunday, September 30, 2007


CHEd chairman and former NEDA director-general Romulo Neri, soft-spoken and frail of build, hardly comes across as one who could cause an uproar. But he has created quite a stir by confirming, in a Senate inquiry, reports that he had been offered a bribe by Comelec chairman Benjamin Abalos in connection with a broadband network deal between the Philippine government and China’s ZTE Corp.

Vol. VII, No. 34, September 30-October 6, 2007

Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) chairman and former National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) director-general Romulo Neri, soft-spoken and frail of build, hardly comes across as one who could cause an uproar.

But he has created quite a stir by confirming, in a Senate inquiry, reports that he had been offered a bribe by Commission on Elections (Comelec) chairman Benjamin Abalos in connection with a National Broadband Network (NBN) deal between the Philippine government and China’s ZTE Corp.

Neri provoked murmurs in the Senate gallery –- despite requests by the members of the Blue Ribbon Committee and the Committee on Trade and Industry that the audience refrain from being “too emotional” –- when he said under oath in a Sept. 26 hearing that Abalos had offered him a bribe amounting to P200 million ($4.44 million based on an exchange rate of $1:P45.04 as of Sept. 28) in connection with the NBN project. “Sec, may 200 ka dito” (Mr. Secretary, you have 200 here), he quoted Abalos as saying to him in a meeting with ZTE officials “late last year or early this year.” What they were talking about was “basically (about) the NBN project,” he said.

A day later, Iloilo Vice Gov. Rolex Suplico filed an impeachment complaint at the House of Representatives against Abalos. Representatives have reportedly crossed party lines to support the complaint; what remains to be seen is whether it would get the minimum number of votes required by the Constitution (1/3 of the House membership) for it to be transmitted to the Senate.

The NBN project is a $329-million contract that aims to connect government agencies throughout the Philippines through the Internet.

The deal was signed in Boao, China on April 21 –- when the government was not allowed to sign contracts because of the then-upcoming senatorial and local elections. It has become controversial for allegedly being overpriced and for supposedly having been signed without going through the proper bidding process.

Jose de Venecia III, son of House Speaker Jose de Venecia and co-founder of Amsterdam Holdings, Inc. which is one of the losing bidders in the NBN deal, has accused Abalos of offering him $10 million in exchange for backing out of the NBN deal – an accusation the Comelec chief has denied.

In a privileged speech on Aug. 29, Nueva Vizcaya Rep. Carlos Padilla said it was Abalos who brokered the deal between the Philippine government and ZTE Corp. Padilla also said Abalos was seen playing golf with ZTE officials in Manila and Shenzen. He also accused Abalos of receiving money and women in exchange for brokering the NBN deal.

As controversy built up over the NBN deal, reports also went rife that Abalos had bribed or tried to bribe a number of government officials –- including Neri –- in exchange for approving or supporting the approval of the project.

In the Sept. 26 Senate hearing, Neri confirmed under oath reports that Abalos had indeed tried to offer him a P200-million peso bribe.

With this, he has caused quite an uproar, and many are now clamoring for Abalos’ head to roll.

There are those who wouldn’t stop at Abalos’ doorstep, and are also bent on unearthing the possible involvement of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her husband Mike Arroyo in the deal.

Neri had also said at the Senate inquiry that he reported Abalos’ bribe offer, which as he said took place either “late last year or early this year,” to the President. “Don’t accept it,” he quoted the President as saying –- and refused to say more about their conversations on the NBN deal, invoking executive privilege.

As is well known, the project got approved and was only recently suspended by MalacaƱang. Abalos, meanwhile, got to stay on in his post, presiding over the 2007 senatorial and local elections which were marred by allegations of massive fraud, and is only set to retire as Comelec chief in February next year –- that is, if the outrage provoked by Neri’s revelation does not force him out earlier.

The man who has caused such a stir was born on Feb. 1, 1950. After high school at the Ateneo de Manila University, where among other things he won a National Science Development Board (NSDB) Gold Medal for Physical Chemistry, he took BS Business Administration at the University of the Philippines (UP), where he was a University Scholar for eight semesters. He graduated as class valedictorian and magna cum laude in 1970.

That same year he went back to the UP College of Business Administration to work as an instructor, a job he held until 1971.

The year 1971 was, for Neri, the start of a corporate career spanning several years. From 1971 to 1977 he held various management positions in Riverside Mills Corp., Mobil Oil Philippines, Luzon Stevedoring Corp., and the Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC).

He enrolled at the MBA program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1977 and earned his degree two years later.

He returned to the country the same year he completed his MBA, and worked until 1985 for CJ Yulo and Sons, Inc.

From 1986 to 1990, he was a professor at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM).

In 1990, he was appointed director-general of the Congressional Budget and Planning Office (CBPO) –- a post he held until 2002, when Arroyo took him in as NEDA director-general.

During his stint at the CBPO –- his longest in any single government post so far –- he became closely associated with the elder De Venecia, who has served several terms as House Speaker. He is reported to have been appointed to the post of NEDA director-general upon the elder De Venecia’s recommendation.

In July 2005, he was appointed to head the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) after then Budget Secretary Emilia Boncodin resigned along with other cabinet officials who were part of the group now known as the Hyatt 10 over the surfacing of the so-called “Hello Garci” tapes.

The “Hello Garci” tapes were a series of recorded telephone conversations in which a voice similar to Arroyo’s is heard instructing an election official –- widely believed to be former Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano –- to rig the 2004 elections.

The surfacing of the “Hello Garci” tapes provoked calls for Arroyo’s resignation or removal from office, but Neri stood by the President through the controversy. He was made to head the DBM after the Hyatt 10’s resignation, and stayed at that post until he was transferred back to NEDA following Rolando Andaya’s appointment as budget secretary in February 2006.

Last July he was temporarily transferred to CHEd. Media reports have speculated that his transfer had something to do with his disputing the 6.2-percent growth figure projected by MalacaƱang as the target for 2008. But Suplico, for his part, opined that his transfer may have been connected to the NBN deal –- something which Neri said at the Sept. 26 hearing was something he thought unlikely.

A little over two months after his transfer to CHEd, Neri creates an uproar with the revelation that Abalos had offered him a P200-million peso bribe in relation to the NBN project. Right now it remains to be seen whether or not he would eventually spill the beans on the possible involvement of the Arroyo couple in the controversial contract. Bulatlat

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