Quibbling while the country is being robbed

Under questioning at the Senate on the National Broadband Network contract with ZTE, former Socio-economic Planning Secretary Romulo Neri stated that he truly believed it would be beneficial for the government to operate its own network.  Asked whether he thought such a project was best pursued through a government-togovernment loan or through a build-operate-transfer (BOT) scheme undertaken by the private sector, he quibbled.  The question lies outside the scope of his functions, he said.

Did it not bother you at all, asks Senator Mar Roxas, that someone offered you a bribe in exchange for your approval of the project?  Yes it did, Secretary Neri replies, and that’s the reason I asked my technical staff at the National Economic Development Authority to go over the project very carefully.  But you approved it anyway, Roxas presses, despite your own reservations.  Why?  I was convinced it was a viable project, Neri says.  Under typical circumstances, that answer would suffice.  But, in Neri’s case, it doesn’t.

Because of his academic background, Neri’s reputation is that of a technocrat who uses scientific reason to determine the alternative courses of action available given certain objectives.  He used this image to full effect at the Senate hearing in order to avoid having to answer some questions.  For indeed, the only legitimate way to argue with a technocrat is by confronting his technical arguments with your own technical arguments.  That was what the paper of the two economics professors from the University of the Philippines set out to do.  And that was what Roxas was trying to do when he challenged the economic assumptions of the ZTE contract.

By joining the Cabinet, Neri became an active participant in the decision-making process, a fundamentally political function.  And so when he played a round of golf with someone who had been assiduously following up a project pending in his office, he must know that he was doing so not as a technical person but as a political alter ego of the president. If Neri had not acted as if he did not mind assuming the role of a golf crony, would Chairman Benjamin Abalos have been stupid or bold enough to offer him a bribe?

The usefulness of technical men like Neri to government, especially one with a severe legitimacy and trust problem, cannot be gainsaid. The social capital they have acquired from their previous engagement in academe serves as an effective smokescreen for all the sordid deals that are transacted daily in the higher echelons of government. Those who are aware of it are sometimes called whores of power. The naïve ones who don’t sooner or later wake up to the realities of power in which they are implicated.

Which one is Neri?  This former professor of the Asian Institute of Management had a rare chance to define himself at the Senate hearing, something he could have done to Abalos’ face when the latter offered to buy his honor.  But he retreated, leaving others once more to do the defining for him.

He leaves too many questions unanswered, and so the public cannot be blamed for filling in the blanks.  How did President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo respond when he reported to her the alleged bribe offer of Abalos? He says that she told him to refuse the bribe.  Then he clams up, invoking executive privilege.  If the whole conversation is confidential, why did he deem it important to say that in that conversation GMA had told him to refuse the bribe?  Sec. Neri says he is prepared to tell the truth.  Isn’t withholding relevant information a form of lying?  It is clear he is protecting GMA.  It is time he realized how GMA is treating him.

Soon after he gives his 11th-hour endorsement of the broadband project, he is relieved of his duties as Neda Director-General.  He is transferred to the Commission on Higher Education as acting Chairman.  This move perplexes everyone.  Neri, the man who stuck it out with GMA after half of the Cabinet resigned in 2005, tries to keep a brave face despite the implied demotion.  Then media starts asking him about unconfirmed reports of a 200-million-peso attempted bribe. He neither confirms nor denies the information.  But, he tells media, he will shed light on this issue at the right time under oath before the right forum.  If that is not a self-invitation to a formal investigation, I don’t know what it is.

I heard Neri’s interview over DZBB with Arnold Clavio and Ali Sotto, and I became curious, wondering if he realized what he was doing. When Joey de Venecia came out and told everything he knew in a sworn affidavit, it was easy to see that a political time-bomb was ticking.  There was now no way Neri could back out from naming Abalos. Malacanang quickly went on a damage control mode to insulate GMA and the First Gentleman from the anticipated explosion. And so we are informed that GMA had earlier ordered a “discreet investigation” of this bribery attempt, but that the reports yielded no corroborating information.  This is clearly meant to free GMA from the possible charge of failure to enforce the law and protect the national interest.  But where does this leave the loyal Neri?

“That’s how he saw things,” beams Eduardo Ermita, the amiable Executive Secretary.  What he’s saying is that Neri saw things and misunderstood them.  One does not need to be a political analyst to know that, even as Ermita instructs poor Neri to finesse the inconvenient truths he has so far unburdened himself of, Malacanang will be standing by the man who has served the Arroyos well – Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos.


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