Monday, December 24, 2007

Philippines: Furor over US lobby deal

This is not the first time there has been a furor and investigation of Arroyo govt. lobbying. Last time the Senate actually held the National Security Advisor under arrest for contempt of Senate. This is the first I heard that Gonzales faked a heart problem. I believe that doctors examined him! Anyway that contract was a real scandal since it was designed to help Arroyo change the constitution!
I guess Arroyo badly needs help from the US. Arroyo's ratings would make Bush look like a top rock star.


Lavish $50-M lobby deal a go — Palace


By Sherwin C. Olaes and Ben Gines Jr.

12/23/2007



President Arroyo will pursue an expensive $50 million contract to hire an American lobby firm to represent the country’s interest in the United States for six months despite a snowballing protest over it.

Chief presidential legal counsel Sergio Apostol said there’s nothing wrong with the hiring of a lobby group to push the interest of the Filipino people in Washington, adding that Sen. Manuel Roxas II, who was the first to raise a howl over the deal, was only making “an issue over it to get media mileage on his president in ambition in 2010.”

“I don’t see anything wrong about it because there’s no government in the world which has no lobbyists in Washington. They all have lobbyists in Washington. Nothing unusual we need it to protect our interests,” he said.

When asked why the hiring of Covington and Burling LLP would cost the Arroyo government some $50 million for six months, which according to





Roxas is expensive, Apostol was evasive saying he doesn’t know anything about it.

“If you’re asking is its wasteful? We’re trying to get some aid, protect our interest, such as reducing the sugar quota, coconut, copra which we export to the US and among others, why?, because no one can protects us. We can’t rely on our own embassy doing also the lobbying,” he said.

“We need to lobby for the inclusion of export possible materials in the trade agreement, there’s a lot to lobby (for), without a lobby group many of our products would not be exported there,” he added.

More protests were raised yesterday over the government’s plan to hire an American lobby firm to spruce up the image of President Arroyo before institutions in the United States.

Malacanang’s plan to hire an American lobby firm drew a flak as opposition described it as an “insensitive” act at a time when millions of Filipinos will be celebrating a bleak Christmas because of poverty.

Makati Mayor and United Opposition (UNO) president Jejomar Binay said while millions of Filipinos try to make ends meet this Christmas, Malacanang is willing to spend millions of dollars for lobby firm of Covington & Burling LLP.

“Malacanang should abandon its habit of unveiling so-called poverty alleviation measures that only serve PR purposes but do not impact positively on the lives of the poor,” he said.

Binay said Malacanang’s announcement that it will engage the services of a high-profile lobby firm and will pay top dollar for their services is highly insensitive, considering that many Filipinos will not even be able to put food on their table this Christmas.

The Makati mayor cited a recent survey conducted by the Social Weather Station that around 17 million Filipinos or 19 percent of the population go hungry every day, while 45 million Filipinos or 53 percent of families consider themselves poor.

“At no other time since Mrs. Arroyo came to power will there be millions of Filipinos observing Christmas with hardly any food on their table. This is the real face of the Philippines that the administration has been trying to ignore,” he said.

Binay said Malacanang should instead take a serious look at the conditions of the poor and utilize

public funds for projects that truly address their needs rather than spend money for a lobby firm.

The opposition instead asked Malacanang to abandon its habit of unveiling so-called poverty alleviation measures that only serve PR purposes but do not impact positively on the lives of the poor.

Binay, who is also national president of PDP Laban, added that Palace officials are committing mental dishonesty by reducing the lobbying issue to how much the contract would cost.

Binay said whatever the amount, the issue is that the money that will be paid could be put to better use, by prioritizing services and assistance to the poor.

Binay pointed out that had it not been for media reports about the contract, Palace officials, known for its propensity to disregard transparency in government dealings, would not have admitted that negotiations with the lobby firm are on-going.

Binay said the Covington & Burling lobby contract is in the same mold as the Venable contract, the ZTE contract and other highly irregular transactions that were all entered into on the sly.

In July 2005, National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales signed a lobbying contract with Venable LLP to seek funding from the US for the administration’s plan to change the Constitution.

The contract was scrapped after a public outcry over the lack of transparency and terms of payment.

“He’s (Roxas) talking because of his ambition to become the next president of this country. Let’s say we remove that ambition of him and I think he will not be talking,” he said.

Roxas earlier challenged the Arroyo government to publish in full the provisions of the multimillion-dollar contract signed between the Philippine Embassy in Washington D.C. and Covington & Burling LLP, the lobby group.

A year or so earlier, the Arroyo government was discovered to have engaged an American lobby firm Venable LLP, at a similar cost of $50 million, to primarily raise funds and support for Mrs. Arroyo’s campaign to change the Constitution.

The signatory for the country was National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, who, when summoned by the Senate to explain why US funding was being sought for Charter change in the country, a business solely of the Filipinos, the NSA refused to divulge the terms and conditions, as well as scope of the Venable Lobby contract.

He was cited in contempt by the Senate, and detained in the chamber, but Gonzales was suspected to have faked a heart condition and was instead transferred to a hospital.

The details of the Venable contract were never made public by Malacañang, although it was pressured to rescind the contract.

It was not publicly known whether the Philippine government had to pay $50 million to Venable despite the cancellation of the contract.

Roxas, commenting on the hiring of the new lobby firm said: “This amount is even bigger than what we get from the US in military aid. If they (Malacañang) can’t defend this in Plaza Miranda, then they should junk it altogether,” Roxas said.

The senator, chairman of the Senate trade and commerce committee, noted that the contract is another example of wasteful and non-transparent spending of the people’s hard-earned money.

“What can Covington do that our own Philippine Embassy cannot accomplish? A sum of $50-million for a prominent US lobby firm is P2 billion worth of assistance to disadvantaged sectors like farmers, fishermen, distressed OFWs, malnourished children and many others,” he said.

He also asked if it was right for this PR lobby group contract to be funded by taxpayers’ money.

Roxas scored the government for being quick in saying yes, in entering into such multi-million dollar contracts, but when it comes to the suspension of the eVAT on oil bills, Malacañang is just as quick to say no.

“Glaring examples of such overpriced and needless foreign contracts are precisely why it is better to let the people enjoy part of their money by suspending the eVAT on oil than let government decide on how such revenues should be allocated,” he explained.

The senator recalled that the failed Venable contract, which was priced at P50 million, drew a huge outcry from the people and members of Congress.

“I am familiar with the rates charged for normal trade access or information access. This amount is for something more, perhaps like getting the US Defense and Military establishment to soften resistance to a new strain of Martial Law,” he said.

He added that it was the repetitious wrong acts committed by this government that makes it suffer from crediblity problems.

The senator said that foreign contracts such as the Covington deal must go through public bidding and be imbued with transparency and accountability.

“Who is behind this contract and why? Who is ready to stand before the people and explain what this contract is all about and why $50-million of the people’s money should be spent on this rather than on school-feeding programs, better health services, and other priorities?” he queried.

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