MANILA, Philippines -- Officials of China?s ZTE Corp., the winner of the bidding for the scrapped national broadband network (NBN) project, advanced at least $1 million to resigned poll chief Benjamin Abalos, businessman Jose De Venecia III told the Senate inquiry into the scandal-tainted deal on Monday.
Senators pointed out that under the law, this constitutes plunder because, at the time the alleged advance was supposed to have been given, the exchange rate would make it worth P50 million.
Government officials summoned to the hearing maintained that Rodolfo Noel Lozada Jr., another key witness in the NBN inquiry, was not kidnapped.
De Venecia III was the one who originally blew the whistle on the alleged anomalies in the NBN contract, naming Abalos as the one who supposedly brokered the deal with ZTE, and also implicating First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo.
At the same time, other witnesses said Lozada admitted he did not want to testify before the Senate on the NBN contract, which President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo eventually scrapped following allegations of bribery and corruption surrounding the deal.
During the hearing, Lozada repeated his earlier testimony that ZTE officials told him they had already given advances. But he admitted not knowing how much had been paid.
?They?re [ZTE officials] worried because they?ve already given advances and the project is not moving,? he said in mixed English and Filipino.
Lacson moved to have the ZTE officials subpoenaed, but Cayetano said the Chinese executives are already out of the country.
Senator Richard Gordon pointed out that it is illegal for foreigners, in this case the ZTE officials, to bribe Filipino officials.
Gordon asked Lozada if he was not alarmed that bribery was happening and he was witnessing it, the witness responded that it appears to be the norm.
The senator also said Abalos should not have dipped his fingers into the NBN deal when the former poll chief could not automate the elections despite the requirements of the law.
Asked which threat he was afraid of, Lozada said he was afraid of Abalos and his men.
The hearing took up the Senate?s day, with the regular session declared open and closed after a couple of minutes since most of the senators attended the inquiry.
Lozada, reacting to the statements of the government and police officials, said he was sure it was not the police who fetched him at the airport and took him around Laguna and Cavite.
Retired general Angel Atutubo, chief airport security official and one of the officials who appeared at the hearing, admitted that Lozada did not pass through the immigration counter upon his arrival last Tuesday from Hong Kong.
Senate President Manuel Villar asked the blue-ribbon committee to conduct an ocular inspection of the airport route taken by Lozada so that the testimonies at the Senate are understood.
His suggestion, which will be decided by the committee later, will cover the route taken from the plane to the car.
At the same time, the committee, after being told that the video from the airport would not show what happened at Gate 7, where Lozada supposedly passed on exiting the plane, decided not to play the footage.
Lozada said he was turned over to the Police Security and Protection Office (PSPO) only after the dinner and interview with the lawyer at the Outback Restaurant.
He said the men who fetched him at the airport refused to identify themselves, but would only tell him: ?Kaming bahala sa yo [We?ll take care of you].?
?I really did not feel they were my protector[s]. They would have at least answered me when I asked them who they were....hanggang lumayo ng lumayo kami sa Maynila [until we went farther and farther from Manila],? he said.
And while they did take him to La Salle Greenhills, Lozada said his escorts wanted to bring him to Rembrandt Hotel at around 11 a.m.
?I am really sure that the ones who took me from the airport are different from those who took me to La Salle,? he said.
Lozada also said he did not voluntarily give his hand-carry bag, his computer bag, and his passport to the men who fetched me.
?My bags were taken from me...Colonel [Senior Superintendent Paul] Mascarińas [of the PSPO] was always with me. Oo, close kami [Yes, we were close],? he said.
Lozada said he was not free to move, as there was only one exit and his escorts were always with him.
?I've always admitted that I did not want to go to the Senate. But they keep forgetting that I have always had three requests, the other two were that the death threats stop and that I cannot lie if I go to the Senate,? he said.
?It was the police who were always in control,? he said.
Atutubo?s admission came after Senators Rodolfo Biazon and Francis Pangilinan pointed out the security lapse in which a returning national or foreigner was allowed to leave the airport without checking out through the immigration counter.
?Bakit hindi pinadaan sa immigration [Why was he not allowed to pass through immigration]?? Atutubo was asked.
?That was a violation of the law. You even escorted him out without passing through immigration,? Biazon said.
On the questioning of Senator Francis Escudero, Atutubo insisted that international standard regulations allow arrivals to pass by the departure area under extraordinary circumstances.
Former presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor said Lozada told him five times that he did not want to testify at the Senate when the former Cabinet official visited the witness in La Salle Greenhills in Mandaluyong City.
Lawyer Antonio Bautista said that Lozada was not under duress when signed the affidavit, which he was supposed to submit to the Senate and was even given the chance to correct the document.
Bautista, a former law partner of Senator Juan Ponce-Enrile and the late Senator Renato Cayetano in Pecabar, also presented to the Senate a copy of the affidavit that bore Lozada's corrections.
Lozada had testified that the affidavit was drafted for the ?comfort of Malacańang.?
Lozada had told the Senate that he had ?reservations? about a provision which said that he did not talk to any government official about the ZTE deal and that he dealt only with technical people.
In their testimonies earlier on Monday, Manila International Airport Authority general manager Alfonso Cusi, Philippine National Police Chief Avelino Razon Jr., and Environment Secretary Joe ?Lito? Atienza claimed that Lozada, a former environment official and technical consultant of the NBN agreement, was not kidnapped to prevent him from testifying at the Upper House.
Razon denied this and said that the police was successful in securing him as he is ?alive and well? now.
Razon said he thought that Lozada's life was in his hands because the witness told him that he was afraid for his life.
Razon said he was surprised that Lozada had been talking to other senators.
Atienza said Lozada had asked for his help before leaving for abroad because the witness did not want to appear before the Senate.
?I advised him to stick to the truth. I just told him to get good legal advice,? he said.
?I feel violated. He shouldn't have come to me for help,? he added.
In his testimony, Cusi said Lozada was free to move around from the time his plane landed at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport from Hong Kong last Tuesday.
Cusi said no force or arms was used when the two police security escorts came for Lozada.
?He was moving freely. Hindi siya hinihila o kinakaladkad [not pulled or dragged around] as was tried to be said last week,? Cusi said.
He said Lozada was even allowed to use the toilet for about 10 minutes.
Jose De Venecia III, son of former Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., and newspaper columnist Jarius Bondoc were also invited to the hearing.
Cayetano said the committees will decide Tuesday when the next hearing will be.
He said there will only be one more hearing on the allegations of abduction and cover-up up before the hearing on the deal could be started.
He said an ocular inspection of the airport might come first before the next hearing.
Among those who will be invited are the police officer who secured Lozada, including Senior Police Officer 4 Rodolfo Valeroso.