Lozada tells court ‘200 million for Neri’
MANILA, Philippines—Whistle-blower Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada Thursday took the witness stand against Romulo Neri and quoted then Commission on Elections Chair Benjamin Abalos as saying that his friend stood to gain “200 million” with the approval of the National Broadband Network (NBN) deal with China’s ZTE Corp.
Lozada said that he eventually told Neri about Abalos’ statement, and that the then head of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) had no “violent reaction” to it. He also told reporters that it saddened him to speak at his friend’s trial.
It was Lozada’s first time to testify in the cases filed in the Sandiganbayan in connection with the scuttled NBN-ZTE contract. He became involved in the project to digitally link government agencies nationwide on Neri’s invitation to serve as consultant.
Lozada said Abalos made the statement during one of their meetings where they discussed the NBN project. Neri was not present at the meeting although it was he who had introduced the two men.
“I remember him (Abalos) saying … once the NEDA approval is secured he would give 200 million to Secretary Neri the day after,” Lozada said from the witness stand as Neri looked on. (Neri earlier testified in Abalos’ case and said the latter told him to expect “200” if the NBN deal pushed through.)
No currency, or anything to indicate what the 200 million referred to, was mentioned.
Lozada said he later told Neri about the statement of Abalos, whom he described in his testimony as the “primary proponent” of the NBN project and a “siga” (toughie) who once phoned and chewed out Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo, the husband of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, over the deal’s lack of progress.
Acting Deputy Special Prosecutor John Turalba asked Lozada how Neri took the news about the “200 million.”
“I can’t recall any violent reaction,” Lozada said. “No unnatural reaction.”
Said Turalba: “Have you heard of the so-called silence means consent?”
Lozada answered “yes” and laughed a little.
Neri’s lawyer Paul Lentejas posed an objection, and Turalba moved on to his other questions.
But later on Lentejas’ questioning, Lozada agreed that he did not think Neri took a financial interest in the broadband project.
“As far as you know, Romulo Neri, your friend, has no pecuniary interest in the ZTE project?” Lentejas said.
“As far as I know? Yes,” Lozada said.
He also agreed that Neri never demanded money or commission from the project.
But Turalba subsequently asked whether Lozada could tell from Neri’s actions that the latter had some interest in the project.
Lozada’s reply: “I believe the project was still approved under the leadership of the former secretary of the NEDA.”
Neri is facing criminal raps for meeting with ZTE officials when the broadband project was under assessment, and for conferring with Abalos on the deal.
Abalos has been charged with intervening in a contract that was not related to his duties as elections chair, among others.
Lozada testified that he considered Abalos the NBN project’s primary proponent based on the way the latter was pushing it.
He said that during his first meeting with Abalos in September 2006, at which Neri and ZTE officials were present, it was discussed that all communication pertinent to the deal be coursed through Abalos while the documents were going through the proper channels.
Abalos later requested the protection of “$130 million,” Lozada said. He said he thought this was the profit margin.
Lozada said Abalos made the request when he urged the latter to try to work it out with Jose de Venecia III, the then Speaker’s son and namesake, who had another proposal for a broadband project with the government.
He said Abalos was more interested in selling equipment and De Venecia wanted a contract with the government.
But the two men apparently did not trust each other, Lozada said, adding that De Venecia did not know how he could put the $130 million that Abalos wanted protected in his book of accounts.
This was how Lozada went on with his testimony:
He was meeting with Abalos at the Commission on Elections when the latter angrily called up Mike Arroyo to complain that the NEDA would not allow a loan to cover the NBN project.
“Kung ganyan kayo klaseng kausap, kalimutan na natin ang pinagusapan natin (If that’s how you keep your word, let’s forget what we talked about),” Abalos said on the phone.
Lozada reported the incident to Neri, saying he was impressed that Abalos could speak to Mike Arroyo in that manner.
Neri warned him to be careful, saying he was dealing with powerful men, and also told him to “moderate their greed.”
Lozada also said he had learned that the Chinese embassy sent a letter to Malacañang. The letter, addressed to then President Arroyo’s chief of staff, Michael Defensor, stated that the Chinese government was making an additional amount available to the Philippines to cover the NBN-ZTE deal.
He said that ZTE officials were concerned that the project was going nowhere, and that they had given advances to Abalos to secure the approval of the project.
Lozada said he later distanced himself from the project after receiving an angry phone call from Abalos, who accused him of betrayal. He said the conversation was recorded in a CD.
But there was no display of animosity between Lozada and Neri in the courtroom.
The two smiled and shook hands after the hearing, and Neri chatted with the nuns who had accompanied Lozada.
In reply to a question, Neri told reporters that he did not think Lozada’s testimony had pinned him down.
“He told the truth, in the same way I have to tell the truth,” Neri said.
Lozada expressed sadness that he had to take the witness stand against Neri, but said he had to do it for the sake of truth.
He said it also saddened him that Neri was apparently overcome by fear.
“The fact that he doesn’t want to [speak up], he’d rather go through this [trial] than say what he was instructed to do by former President Arroyo, maybe he is really afraid. Neri said more than 100 bullets have arrived at his home.”
As for Arroyo refusing to take the witness stand on the NBN-ZTE deal, Lozada said she remained powerful.
He added that he would rather see her at the stand as the accused, not as a witness.
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