MANILA -- Former socio-economic secretary Romulo Neri was neither considering becoming a state witness nor joining in the investigation of the newly formed Truth Commission of the Aquino government, his lawyer said Friday.
Paul Lentejas, Neri's lawyer, said his client's participation in the Truth Commission is irrelevant because the case is already in court.
The former government executive is facing graft charges in connection with the government's botched $329-million national broadband network (NBN) project with China's Zhong Xing Telecommunications Equipment (ZTE) Corp. in 2007.
Neri, former director general of the National Economic and Development Authority, entered a not guilty plea during his arraignment on the graft charges Friday at the Sandiganbayan's Fifth Division chaired by Associate Justice Roland Jurado.
Emerging from the courtroom, Neri admitted to reporters that he was feeling a bit sorry for himself but said: "We just have to go through the process."
Sonny Africa, research head of think-tank Ibon Foundation, said the arraignment is just the beginning of President Benigno Aquino III's anti-graft and corruption drive.
"A genuine resolution to the NBN-ZTE scandal is critical and will go very far in sending the signal that the Aquino administration is serious about addressing graft and corruption," Africa said in a phone interview.
On Friday, Aquino said he will leave Neri's fate to the Truth Commission to be headed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr.
The commission seeks to investigate all alleged irregularities committed by the previous administration of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Whether Neri will cooperate and share what he knows about the botched deal, Aquino said it is up for the commission to deal.
"I'll leave it up to the good office of Justice Davide to be able to work out procedures whereby we will ferret out the truth," Aquino said.
On Neri's premature show of unwillingness to cooperate in the probe, Aquino said he believes in Davide's capability in serving justice as senior member of the judiciary.
"There's an American saying that goes something like, 'There are many eyes to skin a cat,' and Justice Davide, with his vast experience, will be able to come up with the systems procedures that get to the truth," he said.
Meanwhile, Bayan Muna Representative Teodoro Casiño Jr. hoped that Neri will consider himself turning into a state witness.
"This is expected from Neri. However, we hope that he still seriously considers being a state witness versus GMA (Arroyo) and his co-accused," Casiño said.
Asked why Neri ruled out the possibility of turning into a state witness, Casiño said: "As shown by the experience of Jun Lozada and other whistleblowers, blowing the lid off such multi-million anomalies can be dangerous to your health."
In April, the Office of the Ombudsman recommended the filing of graft charges against Neri and former Commission on Elections chairman Benjamin Abalos for their alleged involvement in the government's controversial deal with China's ZTE Corp. in 2007.
The Ombudsman affirmed the recommendation in late May.
On June 21, the Sandiganbayan Fifth Division issued an arrest warrant against Neri, who posted a bail of P30,000 for his temporary liberty.
Sandiganbayan later issued a hold-departure order, allowing his arrest in case he attempts to leave the country.
Following Friday's arraignment on Neri, a pre-trial hearing is set on August 20.
Abalos earlier requested the Sandiganbayan's Fourth Division, which is hearing a separate graft charge against him, to defer his arraignment scheduled on July 20 at 8:30 a.m.
Both Abalos and Neri were charged with violation of Republic Act 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.
Abalos supposedly offered Neri a P200-million bribe so that the then economic chief would endorse the ZTE contract. The former election official, however, vehemently denied the charge.
Earlier, Neri said he regretted his decision to join the government after he was embroiled in the controversy.
"Looking back, if I had my way, I would not have joined government. I would probably have led a simpler life in the private sector," he said. (Virgil Lopez/Jill Beltran/PNA/Sunnex)