(Written for the Philippine Graphic)
There are very few indisputable facts in the flood of charges and counter-charges coming out of the latest Senate hearings on the $330-million ZTE-National Broadband Network scandal.
The first is, that Rodolfo Lozada Jr. did not want to appear before the Senate, that he had badgered officials and other allies of the administration to get him out of his predicament;
The second is, that all of the government officials and allies he had approached agreed with him and tried to help him wriggle out of a Senate appearance; and
The third is, that all these maneuvers came to naught.
All other aspects of the riveting tale of this Everyman appear like blobs in a Rorschach test; they mutate according to a viewer's vantage point. Everything is perspective. At the end of his second grueling day before senators, it was Lozada's word against that from more than half-a -dozen officials.
So why are Filipinos, apathetic these past three years to a parade of scandals involving President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's administration, slowly rousing out of their stupor and acknowledging – albeit grudgingly and with pained sighs – that it is time to display anger and outrage beyond surveys and anonymous text messages to radio and television programs?
What has changed since the first round of ZTE exposes – which closed with former National Economic and Development Authority Secretary-General Romulo Neri admitting that a government colleague had offered him a P200-million bribe and that he had relayed the indecent proposal to Mrs. Arroyo?
Lozada's narrative with regard to the negotiations involving the ZTE deal basically hews to Neri's tale: a bribe was tendered (and the briber had informed him about it); that at some point in the talks, First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo had entered the picture; that serious concern about overpricing had been brushed off.
Oh yes, and let's not forget: that Joey de Venecia III, son of the fallen speaker with the same name, had lobbied hard for the project.
Even though few Filipinos can even imagine what P200 million looks like, even fewer felt the need to take to the streets in protest following Mr. Neri's revelations. It was just another squabble among the greedy rich, they thought.
Today, while there is still a marked wariness toward displays of People Power of the sort that brought down two Presidents, there is also a dogged will being shown to start a more public display of outrage.
At the least, there seems to be a growing consensus, even among an opposition fractured into ideological and political camps, to send a strong message to government: This one we will not sacrifice to the false gods of stability and progress.
Businessmen, normally inured to the quid pro quo that attends transactions with the government, now say they are willing to pay the price of political instability for the sake of Lozada.
What makes this man special? Where was the tipping point?
Lozada, by all accounts including his, is not a saint. As head of the Philippine Forest, Inc., he nudged some lucrative deals toward his family. He took short cuts and liked the social perks that come with public office – nice vehicles and a never-ending round of lunches and dinners in plush surroundings.
Lozada was not a mover and shaker. But he was enough of an insider to have rationalized that every project has a beneficiary who stands with palms open for the fruits of corruption; enough of an insider to admit that 20-percent overpricing is a reasonable deal.
The Left has a word to describe people like Lozada – comprador, glorified clerks and pencil pushers who labor to smoothen the way for their grasping betters.
Some compradors eventually ascend to higher levels; some remain at Lozada's level. Everyone benefits, depending on their willingness to plumb the depths. It's hard to accept at face value Lozada's claim of not ever receiving money, officially or otherwise, for being part of Neri's braintrust. For starters, he admits that Neri often brings him in when the going gets tough; lunches, no matter how scintillating the conversation, just don't wash as payment.
In the case of Lozada, the ZTE case was akin to being trapped between a rock and a hard place.
This much we know by Lozada's own admission: he had no legal role to play in all the pencil pushing and mediating over the ZTE. That itself should alarm people who care about good governance; backrooms – and golf courses – are the conducive to the forging of shady deals.
On the other hand, saints have little chance of bringing down corrupt governments, unless they are saints with a direct line to crooks – and that would make their sainthood suspect. The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos received fatal blows when key insiders – former defense minister Juan Ponce-Enrile and then-deputy AFP chief of staff Fidel V. Ramos -- balked at the growing powers wielded by a parallel chain of command. Neither were angels. Former President Joseph Estrada – convicted of plunder – was ratted on by Chavit Singson, a gambling crony and, by his own admission, an enthusiastic bagman and diverter of funds.
Compared to these lead actors in past political dramas, Lozada is a boy scout.
If people are now more interested in ferreting out the real story of the ZTE deal, it is because they seem to believe some people were so desperate to keep this under wraps that they unleashed brute force on an insider whose loyalties could no longer be guaranteed.
There was basis for that fear. Lozada had met with Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a sworn enemy of the administration. He had, as early as October 2007, talked with the Black and White Movement, even providing members with his own analysis of Neri's refusal to tell all.
It's surprising how someone as garrulous as Lozada could have been privy to all the wheeling and dealing. As he told dzMM on Feb.13, he talked – a lot. "I talked to the entire political spectrum," he said.
Either Lozada was just promiscuous in sharing his dilemma, as would befit a true political naïf (he was friends with both former military intelligence chief Victor Corpus and former Palace chief of staff Michael Defensor, who did not like each other), or he is the best Machiavellian actor this country has seen in years.
He certainly talked to many administration officials: Environment Secretary Lito Atienza, Undersecretary Manuel Gaite, ex-official Defensor. Palace operative Tony Abaya brought him to talk with lawyer Fely Aquino, wife of administration Sen. Joker Arroyo who, after badgering Lozada on being selective, refuses to discuss "a private matter."
The crux of public sympathy for Lozada is not so much his insider knowledge – though scandals are always great entertainment; rather it is dismay over the display of muscle against a presumptive whistle-blower.
Government executives who appeared before the Senate hearing paint Lozada as a cunning actor who plays well to the gallery as he peddles damaging half-truths. Atienza insists it was Lozada who sought protection, an appeal he brought to the Philippine National Police.
The PNP, much bloodied in the dramatic hours following Lozada's frantic text to his brother about being abducted, insists they were just giving him protection.
Gaite and lawyer Antonio Bautista say they had advised Lozada that he had few legal options to ignore the Senate subpoena.
Defensor says he offered Lozada his help but asked him to say whatever he wants.
Lozada claims Gaite and Atienza knew his planned schedule to attend a London conference was a mere ploy and that he was just going to cool his feels in Hong Kong before coming home on Feb.7 when, officials felt, the Senate probe would have closed without his participation. Both deny this, claiming it was Lozada who volunteered to fly to London; Atienza says he was surprised to find out Lozada was coming in from Hong Kong. Atienza also says he signed Lozada's travel papers in good faith and did not know the latter lacked a visa to the United Kingdom.
Gaite said he sent Bautista to counsel Lozada. The lawyer, Lozada claims, asked him to sign an affidavit denying any meeting with government officials involved in the ZTE deal. At that point, Lozada balked. His choice was flight, not undertaking lies, he says. Bautista, he notes, pressured him to sign anyway "for the comfort of Malacanang."
"That's a stupid thing to say," Bautista counters. The lawyer says he would not have suggested an affidavit that acknowledges Lozada's concern about overpricing. "Malacanang will kill me for that paragraph," he notes.
Lozada says he never asked for Bautista. The lawyer acknowledges he was sent by Gaite. But he dismisses Lozada's claim, saying: "An attorney-client relationship is not established by contract. It is established as soon as he solicits my opinion." He does admit that Gaite's request for a meeting at Outback was to keep Lozada free from the Senate's clutches – the former PhilForest executive had an arrest warrant. But Bautista claims he told Lozada there was no legal recourse. "I told him I'd arrange for your surrender to the Senate. You will just tell the truth."
More problematic is the debate on whether Lozada was kidnapped or was just doing a Judas on his protectors.
This much is established: On arrival at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), men were on hand to get Lozada. Also present at the tube was NAIA deputy manager for security Angel Atutubo, who did not introduce himself to Lozada. Atutubo had sought VIP treatment and provided special passes to Senior Supt. Paul Mascarinas, deputy chief of Police Special Protection Office and to another man he initially identified as SPO4 Rodolfo Valeroso.
NAIA management took the request very seriously that they took Lozada through inside passages, bypassing Immigration and emerging on the tarmac where he was whisked away by a convoy of vehicles.
Lozada was free and in control the entire time until cops turned him over to the La Salle Brothers, Mascarinas says. He certainly kept his cellular phone and was allowed toilet breaks and left alone on the back seat of their vehicle.
Lozada says the details are accurate but that he was terrified by his armed escorts and on hearing how they were wired into Senate discussions and, more ominously, their suggestion that he stop texting for help as they were getting all his messages. Whether that kind of omnipresent cloak is enough to paralyze one's will to escape may be debatable. But in one 10-hour grilling, senators chipped away at the police tale and discovered the following:
a) That Mascarinas did not know what he was protecting Lozada from and, by his own admission, did not bother to get a full threat assessment;
b) That the SPO4 Valeroso (Atutubo claims he showed a police ID) was not a cop but a retired Army soldier – first name Rodolfo with the rank of Master Sergeant -- on casual hire to the PNP Aviation Security Group; both Atutubo and Mascarinas said they did not double check Valeroso's credentials;
c) That Mascarinas unilaterally overrode Lozada's request to be taken home (too many media people, he said) and ordered the scary joyride on the South Expressway;
d) That Mascarinas peeled off to return to Manila on orders to meet with lawyer Bautista, leaving his ward alone with other escorts;
e) That he ordered the escort convoy to just keep driving south (they reached Los Banos);
f) That he ordered the convoy to bring Lozada to the Outback restaurant in Makati;
g) That at all times he was giving orders and at no time did anyone give credence to Lozada's appeal.
And let's not forget, the PNP had Lozada and his sister, Carmen, sign antedated requests for security.
All in all, it was the strangest case of VIP security operation and various senators – all used to VIP treatment – noted how the protection team treated Lozada more like a suspect than someone befitting their care.
Valeroso did not appear at the Feb. 11 Senate hearing; the police has him at a safehouse. He has been summoned to appear at subsequent hearings; nobody knows if he will.
Meanwhile, men claiming to be from the National Bureau of Investigation raided the office of Lozada, taking away papers. Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales told media on Feb. 13 the team was taking notes from the Senate hearing that could help in the investigation and other papers that could help an inquiry into Lozada's alleged anomalies as PhilForest chief. The strange thing is, by afternoon of the same day, the NBI denied conducting the raid. And then senators visiting NAIA discovered logbooks that linked some men from the Presidential Security Group to Lozada's abduction.
And so the mystery deepens. And the people watch and wait.