Palace won’t say sorry
‘We won’t glamorize this issue any more’
By Christian V. Esguerra, Joey A. Gabieta
Philippine Daily Inquirer, Inquirer Visayas
First Posted 01:23:00 08/11/2009
Filed Under: Food, Politics, Graft & Corruption
MANILA, Philippines—So sorry, But no sorry.
Pummeled with criticisms, Malacañang Monday refused to apologize for the purportedly extravagant dinner that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her delegation had last week at a famed restaurant in New York.
“If the dinner was really ostentatious, then there has to be an apology, but it wasn’t ostentatious and I stand by that,” Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said in a media briefing when asked if the Palace would apologize.
Remonde has pointed to Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez as the guest who paid for the dinner that a New York tabloid said cost $20,000 (almost P1 million).
But Romualdez’s office in Tacloban City Monday denied that the lawmaker was the generous soul who picked up the tab. It said it was Romualdez’s brother, Daniel, who shouldered the bill.
“That is unfair. It was not FM (Ferdinand Martin Romualdez) but his brother Daniel who footed the bill,” lawyer Nick Esmale, the congressman’s legal and media liaison officer, said on the phone.
Esmale said Daniel, an architect living in the United States since 1986, was among the most successful Filipinos working in New York and among the highest paid in his field.
Representative Romualdez is a nephew of former first lady Imelda Marcos, one of the richest members of the House of Representatives, and the senior vice president for finance of the ruling Lakas-Kampi-CMD. He is considered one of Ms Arroyo’s closest allies.
A gracious invitation
A visibly dismayed Remonde spent a good part of his day fielding questions about—and warding off criticisms against—the dinner at the world famous Le Cirque restaurant during Ms Arroyo’s latest visit to the United States.
In what he promised to be Malacañang’s “final” statement on the matter, Remonde maintained that Ms Arroyo and First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo were simply invited to the dinner by Romualdez.
Remonde said it would have been “impolite” for the First Couple to inquire about the restaurant or the menu.
“It would also (have been) impolite for the First Couple to turn down an invitation graciously made by a distinguished congressman,” he said.
“We will not glamorize this issue any further.”
‘Source was a blog’
But apparently still smarting, Remonde said he finally located the “source” of the information detailing what Ms Arroyo and her party supposedly had at Le Cirque—a blog.
He said the blog made assumptions about how the bill could have reached close to $20,000, based on the menu.
One computation making the rounds of blogs pegged the total bill at $19,866 with such items as Wild Golden Osetra Caviar ($1,400) and 11 bottles of Krug champagne ($5,610).
The widely circulated New York Post, which reported on the dinner, said Ms Arroyo “ordered several bottles of very expensive wine, pushing the dinner tab up to $20,000.”
Remonde insisted the meal that Ms Arroyo and her group had at Le Cirque was “simple” and without caviar and champagne.
Threat of lawsuit
In a radio interview, Remonde also said it wasn’t surprising if Ms Arroyo was invited to dine at a decent restaurant.
“If you invite the President to dinner in New York, (you won’t have it in) a hotdog stand, right?” he said.
One lawmaker said the dinner was to celebrate the Arroyos’ wedding anniversary.
Even so, militant lawmakers said the supposedly lavish dinner was not only unethical but criminal.
“The law shows government officials are prohibited from accepting gifts, substantial gifts, on any occasion,” Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Satur Ocampo said in a press conference.
Akbayan party-list Rep. Walden Bello said the dinner was like a service and equivalent to a gift. He said he and other Akbayan members would file corruption charges against Ms Arroyo in the Office of the Ombudsman.
Standards of ethics
Under the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials, government officials are prohibited from accepting gifts or anything of monetary value from any person in the course of their official duties or in connection with any transaction which may be affected by the functions of their office.
Presidential Decree No. 46 punishes public officials from receiving gifts on any occasion, as well as private individuals who give the gifts to officials.
The anti-graft law also penalizes receiving gifts or any material benefit from any person for whom the public officer has secured or obtained, or will secure or obtain, any government permit or license. It also bans receiving gifts in connection with any government transaction.
Was it really Romualdez?
Bello wondered whether it was Romualdez who really paid for the dinner or whether he was just allowing Malacañang to use him to take the heat off it.
“He should speak up, and not take the fall for the sins of Malacañang,” he said.
Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Teodoro Casiño chafed at Remonde’s remark that Ms Arroyo could not be expected to eat at a hotdog stand.
“And why not? Is the President so extraordinary that she can’t do what most Pinoys in New York do, which is eat at hotdog stands and cheap restaurants?” Casiño said.
Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Cruz, an outspoken critic of Ms Arroyo, scoffed at Malacañang’s claim that the dinner in a classy restaurant was a “simple” one and that the reported P1 million tab was an exaggeration.
“Practically everybody knows that the place where they dined and wined is definitely not a place where people get a simple dinner,” Cruz said.
Had Ms Aquino wanted a simple dinner, she should have chosen a “simple restaurant,” Cruz added. “What is being paid in the restaurant is actually not the food but the ambiance there.” With reports from Leila B. Salaverria, Dona Pazzibugan and Inquirer Research