POSTSCRIPT / September 6, 2007 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Abalos should resign, then fight back like hell

QUICKSAND: The more Comelec chairman Benjamin Abalos wiggles, the deeper he sinks in the quicksand of his evasive responses to questions about the $329-million ZTE Corp. deal for a nationwide broadband network for the government.

His being linked to the project is ironic because while communications officials led by DoTC Secretary Leandro Mendoza should do the explaining, Abalos who comes from an unrelated agency is the one being bombarded with questions.

It has become clear, at least to this observer, that Abalos is no match to the public information savvy of Speaker Jose de Venecia, whose son is captain of one of the teams trying to grab the ball from the Chinese ZTE firm.

De Venecia’s son, Jose III, is co-founder of Amsterdam Holdings Inc., which offered $240 million to get the same project.

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DELICADEZA: When Abalos is not playing golf or introducing Chinese businessmen to prospects or ordering vote-counting machines, he may want to review the recent files of Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho to remind him of delicadeza.

The 62-year-old Republican said he was resigning effective Sept. 30. Public opinion and party pressure for him to quit built up after his arrest last June for allegedly soliciting sex in a men’s room at the airport.

Announcing his resignation last Saturday, with his wife Suzanne and supporters standing beside him, Craig vowed: “We’ll fight this like hell!”

(His spokesman said yesterday, however, he might take back his resignation if he is cleared before the 30th.)

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HONORABLE WAY: By Filipino standards, Craig’s supposed misdeed is a molehill compared to the mountains of massive graft, plunder and other horrendous scandals perpetrated with impunity by local officials.

If anything like a Craig caper happened in the Philippines, the official on the spot would just thump his chest, cling on to his seat and hurl a challenge at his detractors to “prove it!”

I wish Abalos would consider resigning if only to shield the Comelec from the splatter — and fight his tormentors “like hell.” If he is indeed innocent, that is the honorable and effective way to deal with the demolition job on him.

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RELATIVE IMMUNITY: While a Comelec chairman can be removed only by impeachment, his presumed immunity from criminal prosecution should apply only to his official acts that pertain directly or indirectly to election matters.

For offenses not related to electoral issues, a sitting Comelec chairman should be open to criminal prosecution. His relative immunity should be distinguished from the superior immunity of the president. They cannot be on the same level.

Imagine if for instance the Comelec chairman, whoever he is (not necessarily Abalos), swindles a business partner then simply walks away — because he is supposed to be immune from criminal prosecution. Is that fair?

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MUM’S THE WORD: Meanwhile, junto al Pasig, the silence on the ZTE deal of President Gloria Arroyo and her zipped-up coterie is deafening.

Having stood last April as the prime witness to its signing in Boao, China, the President may just emerge as an accessory if it is proven that a crime was committed with the signing and/or implementation of the questioned deal.

In the first place, that broadband thing is not that urgent. To officials dreaming of their “last hurrah” before bowing out, it may be a matter of life and death. But it is not really that crucial to the nation at this point.

It is politically disastrous for President Arroyo, the “ninang” who stood as sponsor to it, to give the impression by keeping mum that she is materially interested in, or committed to, the transaction.

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EITHER OR: If President Arroyo or anybody close to her is not getting any commission or has not received some down payment, it should not be difficult for her to order a quick impartial review as to its feasibility, urgency and legality.

If the deal fails in the evaluation, the President should promptly throw it out before the documents get lost again. Trashing it should be easy — if she does not have any material attachment or commitment to it.

If the transaction passes on all counts, the President should come out and defend it “like hell,” explaining why the project should push through.

The longer the President keeps quiet, the more she will lose whatever sliver is left of people’s trust in her.

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PING’S RATES?: Sen. Panfilo Lacson told the press how kickbacks from the ZTE deal would be apportioned. He said with an omniscient air:

“Inside info has it that $55 million will go to a Comelec official, $68 million was supposed to bankroll the May 14, 2007, mid-term elections, $85 million to the Big One and the Little One, and the overprice balance, to some equally corrupt DoTC officials and the rest of the ‘usual boys.’”

If Lacson cannot identify his sources, we may have to presume that the figures he cited are the kickbacks he would demand if he were the one pushing the ZTE deal. Are those his going rates for comparable transactions?

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TAX CUT: Former BIR Commissioner Jose Mario Buñag has come out to say that the lowering to P6.35 of the P26.06 excise tax on every pack of Pall Mall cigarettes was a “downward (tax) classification prohibited by law.”

The BIR had pegged the P26.06 rate in line with the excise tax law. He said: “The tax being paid by the local manufacturer of Pall Mall cannot be less than the P25 excise tax imposed on Pall Malls sold at duty-free shops.”

Buñag said the P6.35 tax on local Pall Mall was pegged by its manufacturer and affirmed by the finance department at a loss to the government of at least P93 million a year. Insiders said the father of a high Finance official lobbied for the tax reduction.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 6, 2007)

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