MANILA, Philippines – Former Speaker and Pangasinan Rep. Jose De Venecia Jr. took the witness stand at the Sandiganbayan Fourth Division on Tuesday, January 24, to confirm that he joined former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, her husband Jose Miguel Arroyo and former Commission on Elections chairperson Benjamin Abalos Sr. on a visit to the corporate headquarters of Chinese telecommunications firm, ZTE Corp., in Shenzen, China in November 2006.
In Shenzen, De Venecia told the court, they dined and played golf with the company’s officials.
De Venecia’s testimony was part of the prosecution’s presentation of evidence in the graft trial of Abalos in connection with alleged unlawful intervention in the scrapped $329 million national broadband network contract between the Philippine government and ZTE.
Under direct examination by Assistant Special Prosecutor Jacinto dela Cruz Jr., the former Speaker said he received a surprise invitation from former President Arroyo, now congresswoman of Pampanga, to play golf while and his wife were on vacation in Hong Kong during the Halloween break of 2006.
“I didn’t ask where. I thought it was nearby. It was already when we were on the road that she said we were going to Shenzen,” De Venecia said.
Once in the golf course, he said he sat for breakfast at the clubhouse with the Arroyos, Abalos and some Chinese personalities that he later came to know were city officials of Shenzen and officials of ZTE.
He said they played a round of golf with Abalos and “two or three” Chinese going in the first flight while he stayed with the Arroyo couple in the second flight.
After the game, De Venecia said their group went to have lunch at the ZTE headquarters.
He said he was “surprised” about the presence of Abalos in the group saying neither of the Arroyos informed him that the Comelec chairman would be there. He said he thought Abalos was there since he’s an avid golfer.
During lunch, he said a banker whose name he could no longer recall made a pitch that their bank was prepared and willing to provide a “concession loan” to a project proposal of the ZTE in the Philippines.
In separate graft charges filed last December against the Arroyos, former Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza and Abalos, the Office of the Ombudsman said the golf game and lunch with ZTE officials constituted criminal offenses for Rep. and Mr. Arroyo because it exhibited their unusual interest in the NBN project.
Prosecutor dela Cruz marked in evidence a picture taken of the Arroyos, Abalos, De Venecia and a Chinese nationality on the golf course. The picture was included in the publication of the book, “Global Filipino – An Authorized Biography of Jose De Venecia Jr.”
Aside from the presence of Abalos, De Venecia said he also noted the absence of any media person during the visit to Shenzen.
“One of the revelations was, there were no members of the press. I have joined the former President on many previous trips…practically the entire Malacañang Press Corps was there,” he recalled.
On cross-examination by defense lawyer Gabriel Villareal, De Venecia admitted that his son, businessman Joey De Venecia III, had told him about his interest in bidding for the NBN project as early as August 2006.
He said he felt proud about Joey’s enthusiasm for the project because his proposal was based on the build-operate-and-transfer scheme that would entail no initial expense on the part of the government.
During the trip to Shenzen, the former Speaker said then President Arroyo told him she thought Joey’s proposal was “very good (maganda)”.
Villareal however pointed out that based on Joey’s own affidavit submitted to the Senate Blue Ribbon inquiry into alleged anomalies in the NBN-ZTE deal, the younger De Venecia stated that he submitted his proposal for the NBN project only on December 2006 while the Shenzen trip took place a month earlier.
De Venecia explained that there were already many discussions about the project even before the formal submission of the proposal by his son in behalf of Amsterdam Holdings Inc.
The former Speaker said that aside from what transpired in Shenzen, he did not speak with Mrs Arroyo about the ZTE contract again “until many, many months later” when he asked her to cancel the contract because by then reports of massive irregularities relative to the project have come out in the media.
Prosecutors said they will present two or three witnesses at the next hearing on March 5 and 6, 2012 including Engineer Dante Madriaga. – Rappler.com
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