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SC bans ex-NEDA chief Neri from public service

Republika

Overturning the Court of Appeals’ ruling of simple misconduct, the Supreme Court has found former National Economic and Development Authority head Romulo Neri guilty of grave misconduct in connection with the national broadband network (NBN) deal with China’s ZTE Corp. Neri has also been perpetually barred from government service.


The SC’s Third Division ruling, authored by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, read in part: “Petitioner Romulo Neri is dismissed from service, which includes the necessary penalties of cancellation of eligibility, forfeiture of leave credits and retirement benefits, and perpetual disqualification from reemployment in the government service.”


In explaining their ruling, the SC said that the CA misjudged the case given that “elements of corruption and clear intent to violate the law are quite patent.”


“Petitioner actively brokered for ZTE’s bid by using his public position despite knowing the corruption involved in the project,” it read further.


In April 2007, transportation and communications secretary Leandro Mendoza and ZTE Vice President Yu Yong entered into a deal worth US$329.5 million for a NBN that would ostensibly improve government communications. Then-Commission on Elections chairman Benjamin Abalos reportedly brokered for the project, a claim he denied. However, he admitted to visiting China four times. This triggered a Senate investigation on the project.


Neri, director general of NEDA during the Arroyo administration, was shown to have introduced whistleblower Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada Jr. to Abalos, who was described in the CA decision as “highly interested in pursuing a telecommunications project with the government.” Lozada served as Neri’s technical consultant for the deal.


The ex-socioeconomic secretary then processed the deal’s approval with ZTE as the proponent amid allegations of Abalos offering him a P200-million bribe. In 2009, Neri was found guilty of misconduct by the Office of the Ombudsman and was subsequently suspended for six months without pay.


It said that although he was not solely responsible for the deal’s approval, he was seen to “have mediated – through NEDA – between Abalos and ZTE.” The court also found it highly irregular that he entertained the former Comelec chairman in meetings, conferences and golf games with ZTE executives.


After the Ombudsman dismissed a motion for reconsideration that Neri filed, his case was forwarded to the CA. In 2013, it found him liable for simple misconduct since he did not benefit from the project’s approval; however, the recommendation was laced with corruption. He was fined an amount equivalent to six months’ salary. Apart from finding no proof that Neri took the bribe, they also took into account testimonies stating that he had “no choice” but to greenlight the project as directed by former president Arroyo. Neri again filed a motion for reconsideration but was denied, after which he filed a Petition for Review on Certiorari before the SC.


A review on Certiorari is when a lower court is ordered to send its record in a case to a higher court for review.


However, the SC said: “Here, there is substantial evidence supporting the charge of grave misconduct against petitioner. The facts show that his conduct was attended with corruption and a clear intent to violate the law.”
Although Neri argued that his actions – attending dinner with Abalos and Chinese embassy and ZTE officials – were “harmless”, the high court said that he could not “escape culpability.”


“As public respondent points out, petitioner failed to show that the dinner was arranged for an official function. Worse, he could not account for why Abalos and ZTE officials were present in the dinner,” it added.


They also emphasized that as NEDA chief, Neri could influence the approval of the ZTE bid. The SC rejected Neri’s explanation that he was merely following Arroyo’s orders. It said: “His vote and opinion on the matter must be viewed separately from the President’s. His roles as the director general of the agency and the vice chair of its board cannot be emasculated as a powerless position, blindly following the President’s orders.


“All these make it clear that petitioners committed grave misconduct.”


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