Column: Why Neri refuses to talk

Published on February 19, 2008

I took the liberty of re-editing this particular column, having written it yesterday afternoon in a rush.

I will hazard one guess why Romulo Neri has continued to decline to “cross over” (in Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s evocative phrase) to the other side: Lacson is there, waiting for him. Sen. Jamby Madrigal, too.

In what Neri called “a gentleman’s agreement,” the three decided to hold a secret meeting, together with a few others, last December. To do what? In Neri’s press briefing in Malacañang Monday, he said it was to discuss the state of the political economy. If true, the timing is most curious, considering that the effort to compel Neri to testify anew at the Senate was by that time well underway.

Neri’s close friend, Rodolfo Noel “Jun” Lozada Jr., told the Senate a different version: The meeting was his idea, and was meant to allow Neri to touch base with the two opposition senators. He spoke, quite unexpectedly, about Neri’s poor financial prospects, in the event the former socioeconomic planning secretary told the Senate the rest of whatever it is he knows about the controversial ZTE national broadband network contract. The meeting, Lozada said, was meant also to float the idea of collecting “patriotic money” — that is, funds for Neri in case he was kicked out of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s inner circle. (Memo to Lozada: You would have been better off using another, less jarring euphemism for the money, say a Clintonesque “legal fund”.)

But we are all grownups here. We all know there must have been another reason for Neri to agree to such a secret meeting. He wanted to sound out the opposition. More specifically, he must have wanted to know what it would be like if he did “cross over” to the other side. (Lacson, waxing unusually poetic, contrasted Lozada’s moral stance now with Neri’s in terms of light and shadow.)

Considering that Neri has remained loyal to the President, and given his emphatic albeit nuanced denial on Monday of Lozada’s recollections of that December meeting, I can only conclude that he found Lacson and Madrigal wanting. Perhaps the opposition should choose, or coalesce around, other leaders.

The news of his meeting with Lacson must have startled a few administration insiders; those who already consider him the weakest link in the President’s chain of support must have instinctively reached for the hammer and anvil. Note that it was Neri who broke the news of the secret meeting. He did so, he said yesterday, after he started reading leaks about the meeting in the opposition “Tribune.” In other words, he preempted the inevitable.

Last week I wrote about the sharp-edged open letter being circulated by e-mail and attributed by many to Lozada. “We still have to hear from Lozada whether he stands by his letter, or whether he had in fact written it … Indeed, if I read that letter correctly, it is essentially saying that Neri was and still is afraid to testify in full not because regime change will happen but because it won’t.

The news about the December meeting with Lacson and Madrigal fits into this reading.

* * *

I join the many who praise Lozada for doing the heroic thing, and I hope the bulk of his testimony will tilt the balance in favor of the truth we all are looking for. But the pursuit of the truth is not the only fundamental principle at stake in today’s political crisis; the essential fairness of the truth-seeking process is too.

Sadly, the Senate’s contentious, circuitous hearings occasionally sacrifice this second principle on the altar of the first.

Two examples, out of many: When Lozada returned the P500,000 in cash his brother allegedly received from Deputy Executive Secretary Manny Gaite, the country found the bundles of P500 bills tied in rubber bands. His wit ever available, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano immediately noted the detail, and contrasted it with the bank wrappers that were used on the P500,000 Gov. Ed Panlilio of Pampanga received in Malacañang last October. “They must have learned their lesson,” Cayetano said in Filipino, to an appreciative gallery.

It was, to be sure, a funny thing to say, but it was also inappropriate. The last thing we want our Senate blue ribbon chairman to be is prejudiced, and it is easy to construct an argument, from this supposed pattern of behavior Cayetano had seen, proving just that. Perhaps the young senator should review tapes of the 2000 Senate blue ribbon hearings on “juetenggate.” Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. chaired the hearings with studied impartiality—something which helped add to the credibility of the charged proceedings.

The second example has to do with Cayetano again. After Lozada returned the P500,000, and a committee staffer had opened the envelope and arranged the cash, Cayetano asked Lozada to pose for the cameras with the money in his hand. What on earth for? Lozada had the good sense to decline. “Masyado nang showbiz,” he said.

The late Oxford philosopher Stuart Hampshire’s last book, “Justice is Conflict,” posited an alternative view of justice. Justice, he wrote, is not the reconciliation of opposing claims; it is not in the business of creating harmony. “I shall argue that justice cannot consist of any kind of harmony or consensus either in the soul or in the city, because there never will be such a harmony, either in the soul or in the city.”

What this means, he wrote, is that fairness is all: “fairness in procedures for resolving conflicts is the fundamental kind of fairness, and … it is acknowledged as a value in most cultures, places, and times; fairness in procedure is an invariable value, a constant in human nature.” Even in an inconstant Senate, we might add.

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5 Comments

Filed under Newsstand: Column

5 responses to “Column: Why Neri refuses to talk

  1. alas ka dora

    MLQ3’s website/blog is suspended. would anybody know the answer

  2. inverbras

    update your blog unless you are on vl

    cheers..

  3. arvin

    I join the many who praise Lozada for doing the heroic thing, and I hope the bulk of his testimony will tilt the balance in favor of the truth we all are looking for. But the pursuit of the truth is not the only fundamental principle at stake in today’s political crisis; the essential fairness of the truth-seeking process is too.

    Sadly, the Senate’s contentious, circuitous hearings occasionally sacrifice this second principle on the altar of the first.

    This reminds of an exchange between Roper and More in Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man for All Seasons”:

    ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

    MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

    ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

    MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you-where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast-man’s laws, not God’s-and if you cut them down-and you’re just the man to do it-d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

    What was clear on hindsight was, however, not clear during those highly-charged Senate investigations on the NBN-ZTE controversy. Sad indeed is the thought that in their quest for seeking the truth, the Senators were acting like Roper, who has no qualms cutting “a great road through the law to get after the Devil.”

  4. Thanks, Arvin. It is always good to be reminded of this great scene from Bolt-on-More. You are right: even senator-lawyers who ought to have known better took turns cutting that “great road through the law.” Still do.

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