MANILA, Philippines – The anti-graft court Sandiganbayan has acquitted former Commission on Elections (Comelec) chair Benjamin Abalos of graft charges in connection with the botched $329-million national broadband network government deal with ZTE Corporation of China.
The Sandiganbayan’s Fourth Division said in its decision issued on Wednesday, May 11, that state prosecutors failed to provide sufficient proof that Abalos had brokered the deal for a fee.
“The failure of the prosecution to sufficiently establish its allegation that the accused brokered for ZTE for a fee in the concluded NBN-ZTE contract has rendered moot the legal issue on whether the alleged act constitutes the offense defined under RA No. 3019, 3 (h),” the court said.
“Accordingly, accused Benjamin S. Abalos is acquitted of the charge against him for failure of the prosecution to establish his guilt beyond reasonable doubt,” it added.
The court said that the evidence provided by prosecutors “only proved that accused was brokering the collaboration between AHI and ZTE, where ZTE would supply equipment to AHI while AHI would contract with the Philippine government for the operation of the NBN.”
“It was not able to establish that he brokered the signed contract between ZTE and the Philippine government and that he did so for a fee,” it said.
State prosecutors had accused Abalos of abusing his position as Comelec chairman when he brokered for ZTE to get the contract for the national government’s National Broadband Network project between September 2006 and April 2007.
For this, Abalos was supposed to have received $130 million in commission from ZTE, thereby bloating the original contract cost to $329 million.
He is also accused of offering a P200-million bribe to then Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Romulo Neri for the approval of the project, and $10 million to businessman Joey de Venecia for his Amsterdam Holdings Incorporated (AHI), a competing contractor, to drop its bid for the project.
The prosecutors said these were in violation of Republic Act 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits public officials from having pecuniary interests in government projects. (READ: Abalos conviction in NBN-ZTE case sought)
The NBN-ZTE deal was among the major controversies that hounded the Arroyo administration.
In February 2008, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo admitted in an interview with radio dzRh that the day before she witnessed the signing of the NBN-ZTE deal contract on April 21, 2007 in Boao, China, she was informed of alleged irregularities in the contract. But she decided not to scrap it then as it involved another government.
The project is funded through a loan from the Chinese government.
Mounting pressure from opposition lawmakers coupled with public outrage over allegations of overpricing, corruption, and backroom deals in connection with the project eventually prompted Arroyo to cancel it.
Neri, who Abalos had allegedly tried to bribe, was earlier found guilty of simple misconduct in connection with the deal. (READ: CA affirms guilty verdict in NB-ZTE deal) – Rappler.com